How to Have Tough Conversations

As human beings and especially as leaders, we’re often required to tell people difficult things. The only way to avoid having tough conversations is to live in seclusion, which is not really healthy or possible. We may not want to have these difficult conversations because our natural inclination is to avoid conflict; we know the news we’re delivering is hard to hear, or we want to escape delegating a difficult task.


I don’t know about you, but I find it really difficult to tell people hard things. It’s stressful. It drains my energy. Truthfully, it’s one of the things I hate most about leadership. In this post, I want to share with you a simple formula that has helped me make tough conversations a little bit easier. Perhaps not all of the time, but most of the time you can successfully deliver negative news by using this simple formula.





Ironically, I used to think I was pretty good at having tough conversations. I took it as a challenge to resolve issues for my leaders. Most of the time, having those conversations would benefit me. Notice I said, “benefit me.” I hate to admit it now, but I was really taking on the role of a bully. I had to win, and I often left a bad impression on the person with whom I had to have the tough conversation. Now, after several years of doing hard work on myself which has included coaching, counseling, and personal growth, I try to keep the perspective of a win-win situation with whomever I’m working.


I want to be successful in tough conversations, but I want the other person involved to be successful as well. I want to have resolution and influence in these situations. It’s not always possible, but I try to give it my best effort. Before I give you the simple formula for successfully getting through tough conversations, I want to talk briefly about one of the main barriers that keep us from properly approaching these situations.


One of the main obstacles that we face when approaching tough conversations is that we want to avoid hurting people’s feelings. I think it’s good that we don’t willingly want to hurt others’ feelings, but there may be internal reasons for our apprehension as well. For example, if a leader is naturally empathetic, he or she can feel what other people experience before they even experience it. Sometimes empathy can cause the leader to delay those tough conversations as they imagine how the other person will take the hard news. A leader may also have self-confidence issues or lack motivation or vision. They may have past hurts that hinder them from having hard conversations. No matter the root cause of their apprehension, the reality is we must all be able to speak truth to people in order to fulfill the vision that the Lord has given us.


As leaders, we cannot avoid telling people hard things. John 1:14 tells us, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.” In this scripture, we see that Jesus was full of grace, but He was also full of truth. We must first have grace and give grace, but the truth has to follow. In my own life, if I only have grace and never truth, I'll never grow, develop, or mature as a disciple of Christ or as a leader in my church or organization. If I only have truth, there's a great possibility that I'll immaturely reject the truth by rebelling or fighting against it, getting hurt or wounded in the process.


To have a combination of grace and truth is biblical. It facilitates a healthy environment of love, care, and growth that we can't get any other way. I love what 1 Peter 5:10 says about this concept, “But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you.” Think about those words, “The God of all grace . . . after ye have suffered a while . . . [will] make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, [and] settle you.” When I read that scripture, I see grace and truth. I understand that the process may hurt a little, but it results in a perfecting, establishing, strengthening, and settling within me that can't come any other way.


If I had time, I could show you many examples throughout scripture of the Lord giving people truth to mature them, establish them, and bring them to the place that He desires. He also molds us with a great deal of grace. There's no way we'll make progress in our churches and organizations if we don't live by this principle of grace and truth when having those tough conversations. You have to speak truth; but I also need you to understand that when you speak truth, you must speak it with a good amount of grace. This simple biblical formula will help you tell people hard things: grace, truth, and more grace.


There are many methods for communication and conflict resolution. Many of those methods go into a great deal of depth, and some of them are really good and needed; but if you don't remember anything else, remember to sandwich truth between grace. Speak truth; but start with grace, and end with grace.


What does grace look like in difficult situations? Grace can look like letting the person know that you respect and care for them and understand them. You can't have hard conversations with negative emotions or frustration; otherwise, the person will not receive your truth well. Giving grace while administering truth creates a level of safety with the person. It lets the person know that you're not attacking or judging them. After you have shown grace, speak the truth that needs to be said. Don’t attack or condemn. Don’t belabor the point or continually repeat your message. Speak the truth concisely and clearly.


I do want to caution you that when you have difficult conversations, consider that your perspective is not always the correct perspective. Understand that the other person needs to give their viewpoint as well. You may be part of the problem; there's always at least two perspectives to every problem. I know this is tough, but remember, for the sake of your organization and for the sake of your influence with this person, you want a win-win situation. It's important that even though you want to make a needed change in this person, you also want them to feel like they’re winning in the conversation. This is what keeps us grounded in these difficult conversations, helping us build trust and healthy relationships in our organizations.


When you are finished giving truth, remember to follow up with more grace. The person may feel like beating themselves up by this point, or maybe they feel like you beat them up. This is where giving grace can help bring a level of positivity to the situation. Remind the person how much they mean to you; tell them how important they are to the church or the organization. This type of encouragement will go a long way in helping them know that you're still a safe person, that they can trust you, and that you're not out to get them or judge them. It may feel unnecessary to do this step, but do it anyway. Let them know you still love and care for them. Showing grace after speaking truth will bring a level of safety to the situation and help the person accept the hard news and move forward successfully.


Although there may be much more involved to having hard, stressful conversations, many times we don't have time to prepare for those difficult moments. When you are faced with having to speak a hard truth, remember to sandwich that truth between grace: grace, truth, and more grace.


Copyright © 2021 Ryan Franklin. All rights reserved.