How to Navigate Tough Conversations

Categories: Big Questions, For the Soul, Life at Columbia

Bryan Born is the president of Columbia Bible College. In this post he shares key insights from Crucial Conversations, a book that he has found particularly helpful in his leadership role as well as in all his relationships.

When was the last time you found yourself trapped in a crucial conversation – an exchange where opinions vary, stakes are high, and emotions run strong?

A disagreement with your boss, a high-pressure strategy meeting that requires a decision, a quarrel with your spouse or roommate are all examples of what the authors the book Crucial Conversations describe as “moments of disproportionate influence in a relationship.”

If you’re like me, recollections of those interactions probably leave you with a sick feeling in your gut. As I think about my words, expressions and actions on those occasions, how desperately I wish that I could go back and have a “do over”!

It is precisely for this reason that I have found the book Crucial Conversations so valuable[1]. One of the places that I have had the privilege to discuss its contents is with the Columbia President’s Leadership Group, a collection of outstanding students who want to grow and develop.

In my leadership journey, I believe there are few skills more important to learn than how to navigate the turbulent waters of divergent opinions and conflict. Managing our emotions and remaining focused on the facts and shared objectives must become paramount at those moments. In the paragraphs that follow I simply want to highlight a few key ideas that I have gleaned from Crucial Conversations.

The first insight is to recognize that instead of blaming others for those tense interactions in our lives, we need to begin by looking in the mirror – start with heart (p. 36).

Paramount in this process is determining, with brutal honesty, what we want. Through the years, I have told people that when it comes to counselling, I am a one-trick pony. When someone has asked me to help them with a challenging interpersonal relationship, I have repeatedly asked them to answer the questions: “What do you really want? How would you behave if this were what you really wanted?”

Usually people admit that they want the other person or people to change, to acquiesce to their point of view. We need to realize that the chances of that happening are pretty slim unless we make a move to change first. As I have said on a few occasions, “If you want things to stay the same or get worse, just keep doing what you have already done, because it’s working perfectly!”

On this point, the Crucial Conversations authors remind us that there are three important aspects to take into consideration: what do we want for ourselves, for others, and for the relationship? Asking ourselves to spell out our objectives brings greater clarity to a conversation. It forces us to determine our values and priorities, and then re-calculate what we had originally planned to say or do.

Even though we start with our own desires and motives, all of a sudden we find ourselves thinking about the other person, and just as importantly, thinking about long-term relational goals. Step back, take a moment, and gain some perspective. This is powerful because it will influence not only the words coming out of our mouths, but also allow us to relax our bodies so that our non-verbal cues communicate an invitation to dialogue, instead of anger or fear.


Closely related to the previous insight is the importance of refusing the fool’s choice (p.44).

Once again the Crucial Conversations authors are most helpful. Many of us fall into the trap of believing that we either have to attack or hide – we either attack with force in order to win the argument, or we clam up in an effort to preserve the peace. Neither of these are good strategies if one’s goal is to strengthen relationships and find the best possible outcome. Instead we need to engage in the hard work of searching for the elusive And. Don’t allow yourself to fall into the trap of false dichotomies.

How does this work? This is where the “what do you want” questions become critical, but we also need to determine what we really don’t want. For example, “How can I have a candid conversation with my co-worker about being more reliable and avoid creating resentment or just wasting our time?” We tend to fall into either/or thinking. We think that we have to either make our point and force the other person to change, or play it safe, say nothing, and maintain an unhappy but safe status quo. Are other options possible? Yes, almost always, but it will force us to do some creative thinking, and likely, take some careful risks.

Often out of a concern not to sin or hurt others with our tongue, we decide to say nothing. We fall for the fool’s choice. Actually, we don’t have to choose between peace and honesty, between winning and losing, and so on. We can and should search for and by answering the tougher question: “How can I have a healthy, candid conversation that avoids what I don’t want and achieves what I do want?” Most of us can think of times when we have fallen for the fool’s choice. Hopefully we can also recall times when we have answered the tougher question and found the and.

 Start with Heart and Refuse the Fool’s Choice are just two of the many lessons I am seeking to implement in my life. These ideas are not just valuable in my role at Columbia; they are applicable in every one of my relationships. It is surprising how quickly a pleasant, easy-going conversation can morph into a tense interaction. But we don’t have to feel trapped into responding with violence or silence, fight or flight.

Take a moment, catch your breath, think about what you really want, and then non-anxiously invite your partner, boss, friend, or roomate to find the elusive and. And, always remember that God’s Spirit is present to inspire and guide us.

[1] Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and All Switzler Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When Stakes Are High (Toronto: McGraw Hill, 2012), 1-2.