Difficult Conversations

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Olu Brown, founding pastor of the fast-growing Impact Church in Atlanta, says that difficult conversations just come with the territory if you are a leader. He recommends confronting these situations with honesty, whether the difficult conversation is with yourself, others, or with God.


Leadership is filled with a series of difficult conversations! I have tried to avoid difficult conversations and I secretly admire people who are able to lead them with ease. As a leader, I realized that difficult conversations were frequent, for any number of reasons — staff concerns, volunteer systems, ordering equipment, or lack of morale. The subjects of difficult conversations were truly all over the map. I was frustrated, not with the need to have the conversations, but with my unwillingness and lack of courage in leading difficult conversations. I finally understood that I had to become stronger as a leader, develop better communication skills, and learn to open my mouth and speak to my pharaohs.

I have found that the best solution in these situations is to be honest with myself and with the person(s) to whom I’m talking. I start the conversation with my concerns, fears, and doubts.

Have you ever wished that those who loved you and cared for you the most would have told you that life at its best is filled with a series of difficult conversations that lead to even more difficult conversations? Or maybe they did tell you, or tried to, but you just didn’t listen. I remember reading how Jethro helped Moses understand that he could not avoid tough interactions with others.

But you should also look among all the people for the capable persons who respect God. They should be trustworthy and not corrupt. Set these persons over the people as officers of groups of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. Let them sit as judges for the people at all times. They should bring every major dispute to you, but they should decide all of the minor cases themselves. This will be much easier for you, and they will share your load. (Exod. 18:21 – 22)

Wow! This advice is profoundly wise — guiding Moses to how he should delegate power and authority. However, hidden in this wisdom is a sharp reality: “They should bring every major dispute to you.” In plain print, there it is — difficult conversations. Jethro helped Moses understand that although others could represent him in small cases, he still had the ultimate responsibility to handle the more complex ones. Leaders who avoid or try to delegate difficult conversations will never reach their fullest potential. They will keep the organizations they lead from reaching their greatest capacity as well. They will also stunt the growth of others.

In most cases, these difficult conversations come in three categories.

1. Conversations with self

More and more I believe the real challenge of leadership is being able to clear the surround-sound noise and focus on the truth and the God choice. Most people hear the God choice, but they also hear many other choices. Sometimes young people get off track, and older adults as well, because they aren’t able to concentrate only on God’s voice. Over the years I have been able to clarify the noise from the real voice, but there are times when this isn’t easy.

2. Conversations with others

After you conquer difficult conversations with self, then you must conquer having difficult conversations with other people. These discussions always come with the most dynamic and interesting circumstances. In most cases as a leader, I have found that these conversations revolve around vision alignment and expectations. Perhaps, because my job description is heavily weighted toward talking publicly, you may think that I would also be gifted in talking one-on-one and with small groups. Actually, I bomb in these two areas because, no matter how much I rehearse the words and phrases in my head, they never seem to come out right. I feel embarrassed when I mix up my words. Like Moses, “I can’t talk” or “I am afraid to talk.” I have found that the best solution in these situations is to be honest with myself and with the person(s) to whom I’m talking. I start the conversation with my concerns, fears, and doubts. These confessions tend to release some of the tension in the atmosphere (at least for me) and allow the real words and phrases that I want to speak to flow. Here’s how the beginning of such a difficult conversation may sound:

Thank you for meeting with me today. I want to start by saying that this is a challenging discussion for me to have with you. I appreciate and value you so much that I am willing to overcome my fears for this needed discussion. Thank you for listening to me, and I promise to listen to you.

There it is. Easy? Well, maybe not so much, but I believe that if I can do it, so can you. Now it’s time for you to practice. List three people with whom you need to have difficult conversations. List the subject, preferred location for the conversation, desired outcome, and date to have the conversation. Now that you have completed this task, pray and ask God to give you strength to go for it and have the difficult conversation.

3. Conversations with God

Finally, my conversations with God over the years have been phenomenal, but not always easy. Some people believe they can hear God’s audible voice, and some believe that we only “hear” God through nature and through the wisdom of others. I believe we can hear God speaking in whatever form is necessary for us to receive and understand. Through my life, I have been blessed to hear God’s voice in multiple ways, even including God’s audible voice. My struggles have not been regarding hearing God, but actually doing what God was telling me to do or going where God was telling me to go. Like Moses I have used every excuse in the world as I have met God at my numerous burning bushes. However, no matter my excuse(s), God always offered a solution. These challenging interactions with God have helped to create my spirituality and soul’s formation. Today, I am better and wiser because of these difficult conversations that I’ve had over the years with myself, others, and God.


Adapted from Leadership Directions from Moses: On the Way to a Promised Land (Abingdon Press, 2017) by Olu Brown. Used by Permission. The book is available at CokesburyAmazon, and olubrown.com.

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About Author

Headshot of Olu Brown

Olu Brown is founding pastor of Impact Church Atlanta. Launched in 2007, Impact is the fourth fastest growing United Methodist church in the country, with 85 percent growth over five years. His most recent book is "Leadership Directions from Moses: On the Way to the Promised Land" (Abingdon Press, 2017), available at Cokesbury, Amazon, and olubrown.com.


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