Skip to main content

Seven Virtues for Having Hard Conversations

By May 13, 2021No Comments

By Bob Stevenson

Last October I hosted a discussion group to help our church process through the upcoming election. We don’t often talk about politics at church, but I do know we’re not uniform in our politics. It was a bit dicey, considering the state of our union at the time—but as one of those intransigent idealists who thinks the church is a healthier place when we listen and learn from one another, I thought it was worth the risk.

So, on a Saturday morning in October, about ten of us gathered in a socially distanced circle in our foyer. I clearly outlined the ground rules: treat one another like brothers and sisters in Christ, not political enemies; engage in good faith; hear people in the best possible light; stay on topic. Then we got to work on a set of guided questions.

Was I a tad nervous? You bet. Was my Pastor Radar on high alert for crazy comments? Most definitely. But you know what, we had a fantastic conversation. Sure, there were a few tenuous moments, but we recovered and discovered that the result was really lovely: followers of Jesus could indeed wrestle through hard topics together.

The Virtues of Conversation

This is not normal. A lot of folks are just terrible at talking about controversial matters. Why? It seems to me that we enter these conversations without considering the virtues necessary for vibrant and meaningful dialogue.

Terms like “virtue” and “character” have a dusty smell about them to our postmodern, you-do-you selves. And it’s true, virtue played a more central role in previous eras. This post isn’t about reclaiming virtue in a general sense or resurrecting ostensible golden days wherein virtue or character really mattered.

When I talk about the virtues of conversation, I mean those qualities and commitments which enable a constructive conversation to actually happen at all and shape the conversation as it happens.

What are these commitments? A virtuous conversation partner makes and works to keep seven promises.

I Commit to See You as You Are

In 1 Corinthians 6:19–20, Paul told the Corinthians, “you are not your own, you were bought with a price.” In this context, he was rebuking their de-spiritualizing of sexuality. But that’s not the only place it applies; it also rings out as a critique of “me first” individualism. Whether we know it or not, we are bound together to other Christians, by the Spirit, through the grace of Christ. This has profound implications for our perceptions of those we disagree with. Neither ideology nor preference creates Christian community; the Spirit of Christ does. This means that I must view every Christian conversation partner as a brother or sister to love, not an enemy to defeat. But the humanizing impulse extends to those outside of the church. If we reduce the person standing in front of us to an idea to be “owned,” we’ve reduced and objectified the imago dei we are called to love.

I Commit to Humility

No one person has it all figured out. Some folks are better studied than others, but all of us are finite and limited in our grasp of the world. When we commit to humility, we are committing to honest transparency about what we know and what we don’t. But it goes deeper than this. In the words of C.S. Lewis, humility “is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less,” or really, “not needing to think about myself” (quoted in Timothy Keller, The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness). In other words, humility enables us to make space for others because we’re not obsessed with defending our fragile egos. Why? Because Jesus values and accepts us. And that is enough.

I Commit to Gentleness

Gentleness is neither passivity nor spinelessness. The most powerful Man in the universe is also the most gentle (see Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund for more on this). So what is gentleness? Think of a person who is harsh, violent, explosive, and sharp-edged. Gentleness is the opposite of that. The gentle person holds herself in a posture of welcome. The tired and worn down are drawn into relationship because she imitates Jesus who declared, “I am gentle and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29).

I Commit to Listening Actively and Generously

Love requires more than passive hearing. We actively listen when we ask follow-up questions, give nonverbal feedback that we are engaging, and restate what we have heard to guarantee we’ve heard correctly. Active listening is an act of love in that it openly seeks to hear what the speaker is saying. Listening is generous when we hear the speaker in the best possible light—listening to what the speaker is trying to say, rather than criticizing the particulars. Active and generous listening allows us to actually converse, rather than merely talk at one another.

I Commit to Be Courageously Hopeful

Let’s be frank: these conversations are scary. When you crack open the can of a contested subject, you never really know what worms are going to crawl out. We will never step in as long as we’re terrified of what may happen. But if we’re smitten by a vision of what can be, we can take the risk. After all, “love . . . hopes all things” (1 Cor. 13:7).

I Commit to Cultivating a Truth-Seeking Open Mind

Christians are neither relativists nor conspiracy theorists who treat truth as a tradable commodity. We deal in what is true and real. At the same time, our humility compels us to do so with an open mind. Why? Because we don’t know everything! It is possible (stick with me) that my dearly held position could be (hold on to your hat) . . . wrong. I know—unlikely. You have it figured out, like me. But still, there’s a possibility! Without this truth-seeking openness, we will atrophy in our sad little echo chambers. And who wants that?

I Commit to Patient Tolerance

Finally, I commit to loving tolerance. Tolerance is one of those words that has been appropriated and redefined in all kinds of unpleasant ways (for more, see D.A. Carson’s helpful little resource, The Intolerance of Tolerance). Let’s not, however, throw baby Tolerance out with the progressive bathwater. Here’s the thing: we will not all agree on everything. There are plenty of secondary or tertiary issues on which we will, in fact, agree only to disagree. Patient tolerance enables me to go on living with you in peace, despite this lack of consensus (Eph. 4:1–3).

Becoming Virtuous in Conversation

These are behaviors, but they are more than that. They are promises that emanate from a kind of person. How do we grow to be this kind of person? We have to start with knowing Jesus who sees us as we are, is gentle and patient with us, who listens to our feeble prayers, is never afraid, and is himself the Truth.

Then we begin boldly. The next time you enter a conversation about a contested topic, why don’t you start off by actually committing to these things with your fellow church member or group? If your small group decides to discuss politics (or any difficult social issue), why not review these commitments and speak them out loud to one another? Then if the conversation veers into crazyland, you can call each other back by referring to these virtues.

Friend, you’ll fail. We all do. But there is more grace in Jesus than we could ever outrun. The more we practice these virtues, repent when we veer off course, and get back up again in that grace, the more our churches may experience unity—not because of our sameness but because we choose patience and engage our differences virtuously.

Bob Stevenson is pastor of Village Baptist Church, Aurora, Ill. This article was originally published on Gospel-Centered Discipleship, and is reposted here by permission.