Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High

Pastors have — or should have — a few crucial conversations every week. The challenge: we’re not always equipped for these conversations. In a tense meeting, counseling appointment, or in the dozens of interactions with people every week, we have opportunities to rise to the opportunity, or feel like we’ve blown it.

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High is written to help. It defines a crucial conversation as one in which opinions vary, the stakes are high, and emotions run strong. When facing a crucial conversation, we default to one of two responses: silence or violence. We either retreat from the conversation, or go on the attack. “When it matters most,” they write, “we do our worst.”

According to the authors, we can learn a better way. We can learn how to step up to crucial conversations, and handle them well with a set of skills. We don’t have to choose between telling the truth or keeping friends. The skills are simple, and yet challenging.

First, start with the heart by focusing on what you really want from the conversation, and refusing the fools’ choice of silence and violence. Challenge yourself to find a way to express your concerns without offending the other. Begin with yourself, rather than with focusing on the other person.

Second, be alert. Recognize crucial conversations, and watch for signs that people are becoming fearful. Notice your own behavior as well, and understand your default reaction to stress.

Third, make the conversation safe. Once you build safety, you can talk about just about anything. Ensure that you share a mutual purpose and respect; apologize if you’ve violated respect; make it clear what you don’t intend or mean; and create a mutual purpose for the conversation.

Fourth, master your stories. We don’t react to facts. We react to the stories we tell ourselves about the facts. Watch for signs that you are portraying yourself or the other party as victim or villain, or that you see yourself as helpless. Recognize your own role, and assume the best about the other person and their intentions.

Fifth, state your perspective. Share the facts, beginning with the least controversial, most persuasive elements under consideration. Tell your story, and what you’re beginning to conclude. Talk tentatively and ask for their feedback. Make it safe for others to express differing or opposing views as you express yours.

Finally, explore their views. Be genuinely curious and patient. Acknowledge what the other person is feeling; paraphrase their views; draw them out. Agree when you share common ground; build on what they say; compare where you disagree.

Crucial Conversations gives examples and practical advice on each of these steps. It also deals with tough cases in which their advice doesn’t seem to work. At the end of the book, the authors provide a quick summary you can use as you prepare for a crucial conversation.

I’m convinced that this book is a practical application of Jesus’ command to conflict: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). It is about respecting others enough to make it safe to talk about difficult things, without retreating to grace without truth or truth without grace. While not a Christian book, Crucial Conversations will help pastors — or anyone else — understand some of the steps necessary to hold difficult conversations in a way that is both honest and gracious.

I can think of many conversations I’ve had that would have been helped by the principles in this book. While no book can get at the heart change required to hold crucial conversations, this book gets at the skills. That makes it a valuable book indeed.

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An Essential Ingredient in Reaching Unreached People

The occasion: a church’s first service in a new building. The mayor and other dignitaries attended. The mood was festive — at least until the pastor showed a picture of men hanging from a crane.

The men, the pastor explained, were martyrs, killed for their faith in Jesus. We do not live with the same danger, he continued. We will probably not face martyrdom. But we can not be any less committed to Jesus than these men were, the pastor said, and we must be equally prepared to die for Christ as they were.

We live in interesting times. We are increasingly out of step with culture, and we are feeling it. We’re not used to being countercultural. We get that it happens elsewhere, but it’s a new experience for us here.

It’s time to get used to it. We out of sync with the popular zeitgeist. We may even, at some point, lose our charitable status or property tax exemptions. So be it. We can’t be any less committed to Christ than those who have suffered more.

David Platt once witnessed a baptism in an underground house church. The pastor asked a young man in his twenties, “Are you willing to be baptized, knowing that it may cost you your life?” With unhesitating resolve, he replied, “I have already sacrificed everything to follow Jesus. Yes, I want to be baptized.” A friend of mine now asks people this same question before he baptizes them.

We may not face the threat of death here, but we must be equally prepared to die for Christ as those who do.

I love what Ajith Fernando writes:

The West is fast becoming an unreached region. The Bible and history show that suffering is an essential ingredient in reaching unreached people. Will the loss of a theology of suffering lead the Western church to become ineffective in evangelism?…[Christians] need to have a firm theology of suffering if they are to be healthy and bear fruit.

This is true everywhere, but we’re just beginning to learn its truth here.

Christians Against Poverty

Many of us know the challenges of managing our money. No matter how great our income, the expenses seem to keep up. We may like the idea of budgeting, but living on a budget is another matter. As a result, we end up falling short and racking up debt.

Christians Against Poverty wants to help. At first glance, it sounds like a protest group or ministry for the poor. It’s actually for anyone who wants to learn how to better manage their money. Although it’s certainly a great fit for low-income areas, it’s also a great fit for middle-income people who want to budget, save, and spend wisely. According to their mission statement, "We are passionate about releasing people in our nation from a life sentence of debt, poverty and their causes. Working with the church we bring good news, hope and freedom.”

CAP works with churches to offer a CAP Money Course, which aims to empower people to give and save more, and to avoid the destructive effects of unmanageable debt. The course is simple. It begins with where you are financially, and helps you set financial goals, design a budget, and implement a system that helps you stick to the budget using a cash system. The course comes with a clear workbook, and is taught by trained volunteers. Participants in the course get access to an online budgeting tool. If you need additional help, you can access Internet and phone-based support directly from CAP.

Why should churches partner with CAP? Many in our congregations and communities are struggling with their finances. Helping them is part of discipleship, and it’s also a means of building relationships.

I heard of CAP through friends who took the course a year ago. They thought they were managing their finances well already. After taking and implementing the course, they were able to save enough money to take their entire family of five to Thailand (where my friend grew up as a missionary kid) using cash.

I recently took the course, and we plan on offering it through our church. If you live in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, or Canada, then you should consider taking it too, or offering it at your church.

For more information, visit the Christians Against Poverty website.

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