As I began one of my appointments, I walked into a landmine.
As we all do, I looked for easy wins to build credibility with the congregation and establish myself as their pastor. One such easy win appeared to be simple: put a window in the door to the nursery. This looked like an easy way to demonstrate leadership and build credibility.
So, I went to the trustees chair and got approval. He said he could personally take care of this simple task. Very quickly, a storm brewed. The finance chair, the admin council chair, and the SPRC chair all found me to tell me that this was not a good idea.
I was baffled. Later on, I figured out the problem: the church was scared to death of closing. Any expenditure not budgeted was reason to panic. The people’s fear drove the conversation and decision-making. At the time I made the request, I had no knowledge of this deep and pervasive fear.
Not knowing about the fear ended up costing me credibility rather than garnering it. My desire to demonstrate leadership, to build trust, ended up accomplishing just the opposite.
I’m sure we have all been in moments like that in churches we’ve served. We’ve had our fair share of walking into landmines we didn’t know were there, especially when starting at a new church. At our various beginnings, we know very little about the landscape, the connections of relationships, the motivations that drive the church for better or worse, so it’s easy to walk into those landmines.
How, then, do we walk into a new church, establish credibility, while also avoiding landmines? That’s the question I’ll answer today in this presentation about having crucial conversations.
This presentation will cover five techniques that are simple to use and common sense. The trick in making them effective is to make disciplined use of them and not become defensive while engaged in conversations.
The five techniques I will discuss today are: LUVing others, Reflective Statements, Open-Ended Questions, Find the Pony, and Silence. A sketch of each of these is outlined on your handout with space for making notes.
First, LUVing others. The acronym here is for Listen, Understand, and Validate: the foundational blocks of these techniques. They allow us to demonstrate, in everything we do, that we are completely present with the individual or group as we converse.
Listening means deep listening, the kind where we are fully attuned to what the other person is saying. That means not only keeping our mind from wandering, it also means not formulating our response while the other person is talking. That is perhaps the hardest. Most of the time, as someone speaks, we’re thinking of what we’re going to say when they’re done. That not only means that we’re not fully listening, it also prevents us from hearing what’s most important. The last thing people say is usually the most important, most revealing, thing they say.
Understanding means adopting an “I’m not from around here” attitude. Such positioning means that you’re attuned to the speaker to make sure you really understand what’s being said, even if you think you already do. It also allows for listening for what’s under the surface, such as that fear of the church closing. The attitude of, “I’m not from around here,” causes us to ask deeper follow-up questions and prevents us from making assumptions that can blind to the actual reality.
Validating means letting the person know you’re truly listening. This comes through mostly in body language. Facing the person directly, looking them in the eye, nodding along, all demonstrate that you’re listening. That demonstration does more than just validate that you hear; it validates the person sharing. It lets them know that you care about them, care enough to listen deeply. That sense of care pays dividends because, if people know you will truly listen to them, they will share authentically.
So we LUV others: Listen, Understand, Validate, to demonstrate that we care, get to the true reality, and hear the most important things people have to say.
Second, reflective statements. One of the ways we LUV is by saying back to the speaker what they just said to check for understanding. Consider a church member who comes to you saying that the locks really need to be replaced because too many people have too many keys. Saying back to that speaker, “sounds like you’re concerned about church security,” lets the person know that you heard what was said and are seeking to understand it. They have the opportunity to confirm or refute what you understood.
That may seem redundant. Why not go ahead and respond directly to the concern? Say you’ll take it up with the Trustees committee next time they meet? You could, but jumping immediately to a response misses the opportunity for validation that reinforces that you care and take their concern seriously. It also misses this very important point: what’s driving the conversation below the surface? Maybe it’s a concern about church security. But maybe it’s that the speaker doesn’t want Larry to have a key anymore. Responding with a reflective statement gives the person a chance to go deeper, to reveal more about what’s driving the conversation, so you can get to the heart of the matter.
Reflective statements are simple repackaging of what the speaker has said to check for understanding and validate their statements.
Third, open-ended questions. Simply put, these are questions that cannot be answered with a yes or a no. Such questions begin with who, what, when, where, and how. Note that I did not include why in that list. Questions that begin with why tend to elicit defensive responses, which inhibit the kind of conversation we want to have.
Let’s say that the SPRC committee wants to hire a director of Christian Education. It would be a huge win to go ahead and follow their lead, even though you’re new, and move forward with that hire when you arrive. But what’s at the heart of that request? What does the church really want to see happen?
In this case, asking open-ended questions allowed for discovering that the church had a solution in search of a problem. The conversation, stimulated by these open-ended questions, led to a different solution to an actual problem. This happened because open-ended questions get listeners to respond more deeply and more authentically simply because they cannot answer with a yes or a no.
Open-ended questions allow for checking assumptions or even well thought out understandings. This technique allows you to get to the problem itself.
Fourth, find the pony. This one comes from the tale of two brothers. [story]
Finding the pony means discovering the positive in a negative encounter.
We receive complaints all the time. They can wear on us in unhealthy ways. Finding the pony means listening for what the speaker cares about as they complain to us or are otherwise negative. Perhaps a church member complains that the church doesn’t advertise in the newspaper. Asking a few open-ended questions and using some reflective statements caused me to realize that this particular complainant wanted her friends, who read the paper, to know that her church was active in the community. I used a reflective statement to find the pony, responding this way: “Sounds like you care a lot about this church! I’m glad for that.” Finding the pony changed the tenor of the conversation from complaint to validating her care for the church.
Sometimes, complaints are mean-spirited and bitter. But most often, complaints are the negative speak of a positive concern. Listening for that positive concern as you hear the complaint allows for you to say the positive thing back to the speaker, demonstrating that you really listened, you really understood, and simultaneously transforming the conversation from complaint to constructive dialogue.
Find the pony means finding the positive in a negative encounter and then reflecting it back to the speaker.
This, then, is how we create credibility while avoiding landmines. We listen deeply, we adopt an “I’m not from around here” attitude to make sure we really understand, we validate those who speak to us by using reflective statements, open-ended questions, and we find the pony to transform negative encounters into positive ones.
These sound simple enough. They might seem like common sense. The trick is in disciplined use of them in committee meetings, one-on-one conversations, and the like. There’s also the personal discipline of being completely focused on the speaker or completely present at the committee meeting; not allowing our minds to wander and not using the time we’re silent to formulate our response.
Which brings up my final point: silence. Don’t be afraid of silence. Silence is the key to all of these techniques. When asked to respond, if you’ve been listening properly, it should take a few seconds of silence to form your thoughts before you can respond. That silence communicates far more validation than you could ever communicate with speech. It says that you care so much and you listened so well that you have to think for a minute before you can respond. This is why being interrupted is so bothersome: it says that the person cares so little about what you have to say that they must interrupt to share their thoughts. Communication is, at a basic level, about sharing how much, or how little, we care.
At committee meetings, when it’s your turn to respond, it should take a minute to synthesize the information you’ve heard to be able to ask a good open-ended question or to respond with a reflective statement to check for understanding. If there’s tension in the room, I’ve found silence to release that tension. Leaving the silence hanging while I demonstrate, through body language, that I’m thinking and processing, lets people know that I’ve heard, I’m taking things seriously, and I will respond thoughtfully. Silence can be uncomfortable, but when embraced, can be your best friend in communication by letting others know that you heard them.
For here’s the reality: people want to be heard. Aristotle once posited that there are only two desires in life: to know and to be known. The people at our churches, especially when we’re new, want to know us but, more importantly, they want to be known by us. Making sure they know that you know them, that you want to get to know them, and that you’re seeking to let them be known as they are, speaks a powerful word about how much you care. That care builds credibility.
This goes, too, for those hard conversations. When a church member challenges a sermon, when they ask you, “how can you believe that?” when there’s a deep disagreement that threatens conflict, these techniques are invaluable. Most of the time, the speaker just wants to know that you heard them and take their concern seriously. They aren’t looking for a theological or policy debate. They rather want to be LUVed on by demonstrating that you’ve listened, you understand; they want validation from their pastor that you know what they think. Responding with, “I can hear how passionate you are about this and I appreciate you sharing with me,” when someone says, “how can you believe that?” defuses the situation, tells the person you hear them, finds the pony, and validates that they came to share with you. That, all by itself, creates credibility while simultaneously transforming the conversation by removing their defensiveness.
Such an approach only works if we can avoid becoming defensive ourselves. All of these techniques are quickly undermined when we become defensive. It’s easy to become defensive because any challenge to our leadership or our preaching or our pastoral care feels like a challenge to our identities. Rarely, in my experience, is that the case. Knowing how to separate complaints about our practice from complaints about our personhood keeps us from getting defensive. Most people just want their church to be the best it can be and may not know how to share that without it sounding like an attack. If we can respond without defense, recognizing that most comments have good intentions behind them, no matter how negative or threatening they may be, we will foster a tremendous sense of trust.
Throughout my ministry, I have found these techniques highly effective. They build credibility while allowing us to learn where the landmines are. It takes time, it takes patience, but it will come. The trick is in disciplined use of these techniques and not becoming defensive when challenged.
So LUV your church, use reflective statements, ask open-ended questions, find the pony when folks are negative, and use silence. For people want to be heard, they want to be known. Listen to them and watch your credibility soar.