“We need to talk.” Do those words throw fear into your heart? If so, you are not alone. Ministers are uniquely positioned to feel that sinking in the soul as “we need to talk” often means “here’s why you’re wrong.” Yet when we try to avoid these conversations, we communicate fear or apathy. Or if we jump to an emotional response, it often means a number of words are exchanged, but very little communication takes place. As George Bernard Shaw said, “The biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has occurred.” Even though these conversations are difficult, they do create coaching moments that can lead to greater awareness in both parties.
Let’s start with self-awareness. While you can’t control what someone says to you, you can control your reaction. But let’s be honest. It can be difficult to maintain composure when someone is pushing a hot button. Yet it is up to us as leaders to master and role model this behavior if we hope to encourage and engrain it in our communities.
The London subway system posts warning signs saying “Mind the Gap” to remind passengers to use caution when stepping between the platform and the train. In any conversation, we too have a “gap” between receiving a message and reacting to it. If we remember to use a mental “Mind the Gap” sign when feeling attacked, it is easier to stay centered and talk with someone rather than allowing the conversation to deteriorate into talking at each other. If not cautious, we create communication train wrecks that derail relationships and communities.
But if we come from a place of openness and personal curiosity to better understand, we can find the coaching opportunities. When we discover the perspective or awareness that is missing and explore it, growth occurs. By listening, then confirming and acknowledging perspectives (even if we don’t agree), we have created the opportunity to ask about that person’s role in creating the situation, what additional factors or complications need to be considered, and who actually has ownership. If a solution is offered, it again presents the opportunity to explore the impact that answer would have in relationship to the broader picture of the ministry. Such dialogue also creates an opening if a tough message needs to be delivered.
St. Francis of Assisi prayed to “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Not only is that a wise spiritual practice, it is sound coaching advice as well.