Navigating a Difficult Conversation
About the Guest
We've all been there. We need to approach a friend or loved one about a difficult matter and we don't know how to begin. Communications expert Tim Muehlhoff offers some communication tips for navigating a difficult conversation, and shares some examples from his own life.
Tim MuehlhoffTim Muehlhoff (PhD, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) is a professor of communication at Biola University in La Mirada, California, where he teaches classes in family communication, interpersonal communication, persuasion, and gender. He is the author of I Beg to Differ and Marriage Forecasting, and the coauthor of The God Conversation, Authentic Communication, and Winsome Persuasion, which received a 2018 Christianity Today...more
Tim Muehlhoff offers some communication tips for navigating a difficult conversation.
Navigating a Difficult Conversation
Bob: The Bible tells us we’re to speak the truth in love. Tim Muehlhoff says, “It’s also good to know: ‘When is the right time to be speaking the truth in love?’”
Tim: The book of Proverbs says, “The heart of the righteous weighs its answers.” In the Hebrew, that phrase “weighs”—it means to study. So, I need to study that other person to know—with this person, at this time, under these conditions: “What is the one thing I want to say?” and it could be really crucial what that is.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, May 2nd. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. We’ll spend some time today talking about our talking—how we can do a better job of expressing ourselves and listening to one another in marriage. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. Have you and Barbara ever had the same conversation over, and over, and over again—a few times?
Dennis: I refer to it as going down a dark alley and getting mugged. [Laughter]
Bob: Again and again.
Dennis: Again, and again, and again. You know, after you’ve been down that alley a few times, you recognize it—you’ve been there. It is like, “Why are we still dealing with this?”
Bob: We find ourselves, sometimes, in marriage at odds with one another. We just don’t think alike on something; and we think, “Maybe, if we just talked about it, we would get to a place of understanding.” Yet, every time we sit down to talk about it, all we get to is a place of further entrenchment.
Bob: But I think we have somebody who is going to help us with that; right?
Dennis: He is. I also say that this happened with our teenagers when we were raising them. I compare that—not to a dark alley—but to mud wrestling—[Laughter] —that the goal of a teenager is to get the parent in the mud puddle and to be mud wrestling with them—
Bob: Mess you up.
Dennis: —with emotions completely in control.
Thus, the teenager is in control.
Dennis: So, if you’d like help with dark alleys and with mud wrestling, we have a guy who has a doctorate in both.
Bob: Both of those. [Laughter]
Dennis: Now, how about that for an introduction, Tim?
Tim: That was awesome!
Dennis: Tim Muehlhoff joins us again on FamilyLife Today. Welcome back, Tim.
Tim: Thank you.
Dennis: Tim and his wife, Noreen, speak at our Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways. They have three children—live in Southern California. Tim is the Associate Professor of Communications at Biola University. And he’s written a book called I Beg to Differ. It’s talking about a disagreement or navigating a difficult conversation.
You had one of those conversations with your mud wrestlers in your house; right?
Bob: [Laughter] Your teenagers?
Tim: Yes, if anybody has teenagers, you know it is professional mud wrestling.
I was at a FamilyLife marriage conference, listening to another speaker. He said, “I have an idea. Go home and ask your kids, ‘What’s one thing that they would want to change about you?’”
So, I did. I went home; and I said, “Boys, if you could change one thing about Dad, what would you change?” Three hands shot up immediately. I said, “Do you want time to think about this?” [Laughter] They said, “No. I’ve got mine. No.” I said, “Okay.” I said, “What is it?” All three of them, in unison—
Dennis: It was unanimous.
Tim: —unanimous—“You yell too much.” I was like, “Okay, that’s hard to hear.” My dad was a yeller, growing up.
Dennis: So, did you yell back at them?
Tim: I was. I said, “What do you mean?!” [Laughter] Now, where we talked about listening to evaluate and listening to understand—
Tim: —it is really hard not to go to the evaluation part of it; but I said, “Okay, that was hard to hear. Tell me why.” And it had to do with all the perpetual conversations we’d had—and stuff not being cleaned, dinner plates left in the sink, grass not mowed, recycling—
Bob: The same conversations over, and over, and over again.
Tim: Yes, over and over.
Dennis: It was the garbage can at our house.
Tim: Yes—all the time. John Gottman, one of the top marriage researchers, says:
“Sixty-seven percent of all your conflict is perpetual,” which means it is going to stay with you in one form or another. Now, that’s kind of discouraging. So, we better have a strategy how to handle the 67 percent. We better know: “When this topic comes up again,”—in-laws, finances, parenting, or over-commitment—“we better have a strategy how to address it.” It won’t make it go away, but it might make it more effective.
Bob: So, did you quit yelling at your boys?
Tim: It took every ounce of spiritual control not to get defensive. I said: “You know what? Let Dad think about this.” So, we took the night. I thought about it, prayed about it. Came back and said: “I’m going to try to yell less, but answer a question for me: Why does Dad yell? Don’t answer now. You take the night.” So, they did. The next day, one of them, my middle son, said, “Because it works.” I said: “You’re right. It does. Mom and I are so frustrated that the only way I get your attention sometimes and get you to do what I want you to do is to yell.
“I don’t want to do that. So, we have to get a compromise here.”
Compromise, in Latin, means “a middle way.” So, we had to find a middle way of dealing with what has come up over, and over, and over again in our house. That’s why I wrote the book. I wrote the book to say: “I don’t want to get rid of the relationship with my wife. I just want to know how to tackle the hard conversations that seem to come up fairly regularly,” “I don’t want to get rid of this employee or co-worker because I love the job and I actually love the job he or she is doing; but how do I talk about this in such a way that it will be positive—not negative?”
Dennis: So, what you talk about in the book are four questions that, if we properly ask them and take the time to truly answer them, they’ll result in two things: They’ll help us navigate difficult conversations, and you’ll end up with a strategy that will get you out the mud hole or the dark alley.
Tim: It’s a strategy for understanding. All of these questions come from the book of Proverbs. As I read the book of Proverbs, I was struck by one verse.
The verse said, “When a man’s ways are pleasing to the Lord, he makes even his enemies live at peace with him.” I think that’s fascinating. Is it possible that that person still will be an enemy? Yes, but it’s also possible to live at peace with that person.
I began to think, “Well, what are the things the book of Proverbs is suggesting that I could have a civil conversation with a person?”—doesn’t mean that the issue is going to go away or we’ll ultimately agree. I wanted to add peace back into it and civility. So, that’s why I think Beg to Differ is the title. I Beg to Differ, which is a charitable response to something that you and I disagree with. Instead of saying, “I disagree”; I’d rather say: “I beg to differ. May I differ with you on this particular issue?”
So, the very first question, to me, is: “What does this person believe?” It’s based on Proverbs 18:13.
Dennis: Say that again, slower.
Dennis: “What does this person believe?” Now, what are you getting at there?
Tim: Well, I assume that I already know what you believe; right? “We’re going to talk about finances again. My goodness! I could do your argument for you—I’ve heard it so many times, and I just disagree with that.” So, we often head into a conversation with “me”—this isn’t going to be a dialogue—it’s a monologue.
It’s not a dialogue because I know exactly what you’re going to say, and I disagree with you. So, I’m going to incorporate the strategy of saying my perspective, one more time—a little bit louder / a little bit firmer. Maybe, I stopped at Kinko’s and got some colored charts that I can go do a flip wheel to: “Show you how you’re wrong because…”—that’s our strategy. I’m just going to be more dogmatic. Now, you realize: “Oh, Tim is really serious about this. He must be right.”
So, now, I step in and I say, “I want to hear again what you believe about this issue—just give me the facts of what you believe.” The book of Proverbs says, “He who speaks before listening—
—“it is folly and shame to that person.” I think both of those are really interesting.
I think we get the folly part. There are some times when Noreen and I are arguing. She’ll say to me, “That’s not what I meant!” My response is, “Yes, but if it was…” That’s what I—that’s how I would have responded. [Laughter] So, the folly part, I think, we get! The shame part is very interesting—shame in the fact that: “I don’t think you’re worth listening to—I don’t think it’s worth it for me to acknowledge you because I’m so far above you and my perspective is superior to your perspective.”
So, the very first thing I say to a person is, “Okay, tell me what it is you believe about this issue.” It could be abortion. It could be same-sex marriage. It could be finances. It could be being over-committed at work. “So, tell me what you think about it. I want to hear your side of it.”
Bob: And that’s pretty critical because, as you were talking about this first step of listening to another person’s perspective and listening carefully, I was thinking about, “That’s what I used to do when we did debate in high school.” I listened to what the other side was saying; and all the time, I was jotting down notes—
Tim: That’s right.
Bob: —because I’m getting ready for them to say, “Your turn.” Then, I was ready to come back.
Dennis: But you weren’t listening to understand, at that point. You were listening to evaluate and find the weak spot.
Bob: I was, and I carried that into my marriage.
Bob: So, when Mary Ann and I first got married, I said: “So, tell me what you are thinking. I want to hear what you are thinking.” And all the time, I’m just kind of jotting down—I’m making little mental notes about the flaws in her argument.
You know, I remember distinctly a Saturday morning when we were having one of these “Just tell me what you are thinking” kind of conversations. When I started coming back, she got up, and walked into the bedroom, and locked the door. She ended the conversation in the middle. I was just trying to respond back; but she recognized: “This was not a healthy conversation. This was a—
Dennis: —“a debate.”
Bob: —“debate.” So, when we are listening, we have to be listening with the right attitude in our listening; don’t we?
Tim: And Bob, go back to what we were talking about—high-road / low-road.
Tim: So, if I’m listening to you, and I’m angry and defensive, all of that emotional contagion is bleeding onto you. You’re becoming angry and defensive right back at me.
Tim: Anger breeds anger. Sarcasm breeds sarcasm.
Bob: Insult breeds insult; right?
Tim: That’s right. And a generous spirit will be matched by a generous spirit. My working to understand you is a great compliment. You pick up on that and you say: “Okay. Do I really have the freedom to tell you what I think here and not be judged immediately?”
Tim: And I want to say, “Yes.” Even though some of that is going to be hard to hear, I do want to hear what you have to say.
Bob: So, assuming we can do that—
Tim: —which is spiritual—which goes back to the first part of the book.
Bob: Goes back to: “Is our heart in the right place, at the very beginning? Are we walking with Christ?”—
—because we are not talking about just tweaking your behavior. We’re talking—it’s got to come from inside. But let’s assume that we can get a husband and a wife, who would say: “Okay, I genuinely want to try to understand where you are coming from—to hear what you’re thinking. I’m not going to get into debate-mode.” We’ve now shared that information. What do we do next?
Tim: The second question is even more important than the first one. The second is not asking, “What do you believe?” It’s asking, “Why do you believe this?” The book of Proverbs says that “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” So, we like to jump in and say, “See how your position will lead to death?” But the first part of the Proverb says, “There is a way that seems right to a person.”
So, my wife tells me, “I think our finances are spiraling out of control.” That’s question one: “What do you believe?” Question two: “Why do you believe that?” and, “Why is this so important to you?”
It’s so good to get the backstory—to know where all this emotion and conviction is coming from.
Bob: We tell people, as they sit down and read their Bibles: “The passage that you are reading has a context;”—
Bob: —“and if you are going to understand this passage, you need to understand the context in which it comes. Otherwise, you’ll get some bad theology if you don’t take the context into account.” That’s really what we’re saying here about a marriage relationship. When your wife says something / when your husband says something, there is a context there. If you don’t understand the context, you’ll get a wrong interpretation.
Tim: That’s right.
Dennis: Okay. Okay, we’ve got two questions nailed here: “What does the other person believe?” “What do they think about this? Why do they hold that belief?” The third question is “Where do we agree?”
Tim: The most controversial of all the questions. We view agreement as condoning. So, if I agree with you, then, I’m condoning your perspective. As Christians, let me just say: “We are particularly horrible at this. We tend to look at things in very black and white ways—to say, ‘We’re right, and you’re wrong.’”
I kind of duped my students one day. I gave an assignment to them. There is a historian that ranks the 100 most influential people in human history. So, I give them the top ten; but it’s jumbled. I don’t tell them what his top ten is in order. I just give them the top ten people. They have to go home and rank it.
When they come back, you can imagine what the ranking is. Jesus is number one—then, whomever after that. Well, then, I show them what his is. Jesus is third. Sir Isaac Newton is second. Muhammad is number one. You can imagine the reaction from my Bible students; right? There like: “No way God got bronze! There is no way!” [Laughter] And they just go after it. I say: “Whoa, stop. Guys! What have we not done?”
What they didn’t do is—questions one, two, and three. Question two is: “Why would this person believe it?”
Tim: Find out what his criteria was by which to rank these individuals. Very quickly, this is what he says—he says:
Listen, of course, religion is important.
Literally, six of my top ten are religious figures; but it’s not just religion. Imagine life without science. So, the top two—one is going to be religious and one is going to be science because we have to acknowledge both. Please understand, Jesus is incredibly important; but there is also Paul, who came in at number five. So, Paul, like American Idol®, siphons some of the votes away from Jesus.
Muhammad said he was political leader, military leader, and religious leader. Jesus just said He is a religious leader. So, in my ranking, I’m going to put Jesus number three because I put Paul number five. I’m going to give a nod to science with Sir Isaac Newton; and Muhammad, as a multi-faceted leader, gets the number-one ranking.
Bob: Now, you may still disagree with his ranking; but now, you have a context for why he ranked it that way; right?
Tim: Yes! I’ve had students say, “I agree with his ranking.” But isn’t that important to say, “Listen, I do agree with your ranking, based on your criteria;”—
—“but can I challenge your criteria?” That’s question number four. Question number three is: “Just see where you agree with this historian.” “Just tell your spouse, ‘Honey, concerning finances, here is where I agree with you.’”
So, first thing we do—we force ourselves to find points of agreement and, then, move toward points of disagreement. We often flip it—we start where we disagree. Then any hope of forging common ground is obliterated because we start with disagreements.
Dennis: And it’s really brilliant that you move to agreement before you move to establishing a plan of how you are going to move forward because the person feels affirmed, valued, understood, and feels like: “He’s on my page. He’s listening to me.”
Tim: And if it’s just a rhetorical trick, then, shame on us.
Tim: In other words, if I’m just agreeing with you because I really want to get to the disagreement—“This is going to grease the rails,”—then, I don’t think we are being an authentic communicator. So, we can find agreement; but often, we view that as, somehow,—
—giving away the ranch and “I’m conceding way too much.”
No, that agreement will really open that person up to receive what you want to say, which is the next question—the last question, which is based on this knowledge—everything you just learned from the first three questions: “What is the one thing I should say?”
Now, notice, it is one thing—not five. I might want to say fifteen things to you after listening to you talk about finances or talking about Islam, but I have to prioritize it. We call that agenda setting. I like this phrase that I put in the book: “With this person, at this time, under these conditions, what is the one thing I want to say?” By the way, that one thing might not be disagreement. We often get really impatient, which we call, “agenda anxiety.”
You can imagine—you’ve wanted to talk to your spouse about sexual intimacy and you’ve wanted to do this forever.
Finally, it comes up: “Oh my goodness!” You’ve been thinking about this and praying about this for years. Now, there are, literally, ten things you want to say to your spouse, whether it is a good time or not, because we don’t know if this will ever come up again.
We blow this with our kids all the time when, on the rare chance, they actually ask our opinion about something.
Tim: And we decide we are going to give our opinion about everything because they’ve never asked for our opinion. No wonder our kids will roll their eyes and think: “Wow, I will never go do that again. I just got lectured at.” So, we have to be very careful. The book of Proverbs says, “The heart of the righteous weighs its answers.” In the Hebrew, that phrase, “weighs”—it means to study. I need to study that other person to know: “What is the next one thing I should say?” It could be really crucial what that is.
Dennis: So, what are you going to do, with that listener, right now, who is in a relationship with a very contentious person—
—maybe, even an evil person? It’s not someone who is in a peer relationship, where they, too, are going to try to do the right thing. They are digging their heels in; and no matter how kind this person is to that other person, it doesn’t seem to get anywhere / go anywhere. It just seems like a negative outcome.
Tim: Well, let’s separate it. Contentious and evil are two different things. I would have different advice toward that person, based on if they were evil. I’d probably tell the listener, “You need to get separation from that person.”
But let’s say that person is contentious. Well, I wouldn’t advocate, “Let’s talk about finances for the 80th time,” because you already know where that’s going to go. It’s going to end with that person yelling at you. I would step back and address the communication climate that we talked about. I would think about what the Apostle Paul has to say. When your enemy is hungry—do what?—feed him. When he is thirsty—do what?—give him something to drink. And Paul says, “The burning coals of the Holy Spirit will be placed upon that person’s head.”
I would continue to be kind to that person, as Peter would say—I’d bless that person when you feel insulted. Why? The Holy Spirit is going to get involved and work on that person’s heart through your kind actions; but again, we’re back to the first part of the book. That’s a spiritual issue. That’s not a communication theory issue. That’s a spiritual issue.
Bob: And I really think that’s a nice summary of what we are talking about here because all of these questions that you’ve outlined / all of the coaching that you’ve given us presume that our heart is right—that we are walking with Christ, and that He’s having a transforming impact on our lives. If that’s not happening, then, all you are doing is patching up the woodwork; right?
Dennis: And that leads me really, Bob, where I wanted to go here. For each listener, think about what Tim has shared about these questions. I want you to think about some person with whom you’ve got a disagreement or something that’s going on that has put you at odds with each other. Ask God: “What is [my] step?
“Is it the first question of finding out what they believe? Is it another one, in terms, of why they believe that? What’s going on in their lives?” It may be they need to get a copy of Tim’s book—
Dennis: —to really dig into this. I just want to say about his book: “It’s really thorough. It’s not just scholarly. It’s anchored in the Scripture. It’s excellent. I think it will equip a lot of people who have been stuck in an emotional rut and in conflicts they didn’t know how to get out of.
Tim, I appreciate your writing it. It’s been—it’s a great gift to the Christian community.
Tim: Thank you.
Bob: Well, and I’d just say, too, if you find yourself stuck in the same conversation over and over again, get a copy of the book and read through it on your own with a highlighter. Then, at the end of reading the book, go to your spouse and say: “I just finished reading this book. It identified two, or three, or four, or five things that I realize I could do a better job at when we communicate.”
Spell out for your spouse what those two, or three, or four, or five things are.
Then, don’t, at the end of the conversation, say, “So, now, it’s your turn to read the book.” Let’s see if God will prompt them to do that, as well. But get a copy of Tim Muehlhoff’s book, I Beg to Differ. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the button in the upper left-hand corner that says, “Go Deeper.” All the information you need about how to get a copy of Tim’s book is available right there. You can order from us, online—FamilyLifeToday.com is our website.
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Go to FamilyLifeToday.com. You can order Tim’s book, I Beg to Differ from our website;—
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Now, I don’t know if you and your family have any special summer plans; but for most of us, we try to look for some time in the summer when we can do something special together, as a family—maybe meet up with family members who live in other parts of the country or some kind of a family vacation. The point is that during summertime our regular routine is often interrupted. We wind up doing things that are a little out of the ordinary.
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I hope you have a great weekend. Hope you and your family are able to worship together this weekend, and I hope you can join us back on Monday. Our friend, Jim Daly, from Focus on the Family®, is going to be here. We’re going to talk about a movie that Focus on the Family is going to have in local theaters next Tuesday night. It’s a movie called Irreplaceable, and it’s all about families. We’ll talk about the movie Monday. Hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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