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4 Ways To Remain Present in Hard Conversations about Race

Conversations about race, justice, and biblical unity can be hard. But there is hope.

Conversations about race, justice, and biblical unity can be hard. Krista and I have had MANY “difficult conversations” (sometimes, even full-blown arguments) on these topics, and they’re rarely easy. Sometimes we find ourselves dragging old conversations into the current one. Sometimes we think we already know what the other is going to say and forget to listen!

Here are a couple of examples of how we’ve struggled.

  • Many years ago, Krista had a very rough, race-based, interaction with a coworker. The exchange culminated with hurtful accusations and a fractured working relationship. Years later, as Krista and I argued about similar race issues, some of her responses were sparked from her conversation with her coworker years before—but they were directed at me in the moment.

  • Often during our hard talks, I would become a modern day “prophet,” automatically “knowing” what Krista was thinking and what she was going to say before she said it. How? Because it was what she “always” said. I didn’t allow room for her to grow or change her mind. I simply settled into the judgement of “this is how she always is.”

Through our discussions, we’ve learned that one of the most effective skills for productive conversations is the ability to be present with each other in the moment. When we’re present, we’re alert to what the other person is saying. We’re not jumping ahead to what we’re going to say, and we’re not bringing old conflicts with other people (along with all the emotions and assumptions) into the present.

How We Fail To Be Present

Think about your last difficult conversation. Do you remember thinking or doing any of these things?

  • You’ve thought, “Ugh, I know how this is going to go,” or “I’ve had this conversation before.”

  • You just knew what the other person would say.

  • You didn’t listen because you were too busy preparing your rebuttal.

  • You tuned out entirely, judging the conversation to be a waste of time, or judging the person to be not worth the effort, since they were never going to change anyway.

If any of these have been true for you, either consciously or subconsciously, don’t worry. You’re not defective; you’re simply human. Yes, these responses are part of being human. On one level, they serve to protect our “right” to be right, to help us feel safe, and to shield us from the pain of rejection.

Yet when it comes to conversations about race, justice, and unity, these responses rarely, if ever, benefit the conversation. Why? Because they indicate that you’re not fully engaged with the other person. You’re not being present.

Relating To Each Other in the Present Moment

If we want to have helpful conversations about race, justice, and unity, we must do so from the present. Our thoughts and attitudes must be present with each other, not focused on previous conversations or wound up in predetermined judgments.

Here are four ways to practice being present during difficult conversations:

1. Be aware

When talking with someone, it helps to be aware of your assumptions and emotions toward them and their ideas. It’s easy to assume we know their heart posture simply because of something they’ve said before, something you read on their social media, or something someone else said about them. Your assumptions may be right … or wrong. So it’s important not to write off a person or their comments just because you “knew they would say that.”

Check in with yourself. Are you harboring any resentments from your last conversation with them? Are you feeling anxious, afraid, or tense as you begin the conversation? Do you need to forgive or ask for forgiveness?

Check in with them, too. Ask, “What thoughts have you had about this since we last spoke?” It’s possible their opinion has changed after reflecting on your last conversation. Even if it hasn’t, try to engage with the person anew.

Being present looks like connecting with the person in front of you, in that moment, without the judgments or emotions of previous experiences.

2. Be curious

Curiosity is vital for productive conversations. Not only will it help you understand opposing views, but it will also relay to others that you really are seeking to understand—and not just seeking to be right.

So be curious. Ask questions. Here are a few suggestions:

  • I’d really like to know what’s happening for you.

  • Can you describe three feelings you are experiencing at this moment?

  • Can you help me understand your position?

  • What do you mean by that?

  • What is a biblical definition for that term or idea?

  • What are some resources that might help me understand your position better? (If they suggest anything, follow up on those suggestions!)

Let the other person ask questions as well. Ask if there is anything they would like you to clarify.

Being present looks like engaging with genuine interest and showing respect for the other person by asking meaningful, useful questions that will help you understand their position.

3. Be patient

Being present in a difficult conversation can involve patience—with yourself, with the other person, and with God.

Be patient with yourself. You don’t have to have an answer to every question. You can even ask to put a pause in the conversation and come back to it! Also, accept that sometimes you will get things wrong. Sometimes you will say the wrong things (even when you’re trying your best not to). When this happens, ask for forgiveness.

Be patient with the person in front you. Difficult conversations are difficult! The other person is probably experiencing some of the same emotions you are. Keep this in mind, and extend grace. Ask them if they need a break from the conversation or would like to come back to it later.

Be patient with the Lord, and with what he may be doing with both of you. Don’t put others (or yourself) on your time scale. Trust God.

Being present looks like exercising patience, extending grace, breathing deeply when you want to yell in frustration, asking for and granting “time-outs” in the conversation, being willing to return to the conversation, and allowing both parties time to process or think.

4. Be clear about your goals

What is your goal for the conversation? It’s important to clarify this goal for yourself, but sometimes you’ll need to do this with the other person. What outcome do you want? A preserved relationship? Being right? Ending the conversation quickly?

Once you’ve articulated your goal, shift your response to achieve the desired outcome. Consider how you may be able to build a bridge to the person in front of you. Instead of allowing emotions to get the upper hand, work to slow things down and de-escalate the conversation and reach the desired outcome—not only for the conversation, but for the relationship. When Krista and I have hard conversations, we often pause to reaffirm our commitment to our friendship.

Being present looks like backing off when emotions start to take over, and remembering the goals of both the conversation and the relationship.

We Can Have Hard Conversations

Krista and I are still learning how to have hard conversations with each other. Being present isn’t always easy. We didn’t do this well in the beginning, and it still isn’t something we’ve mastered fully. But while conversations on race, justice, and unity can be hard, we can all commit to “bear with one another” as we traverse these topics with others. Learning to be present is an important first step. As family, we don’t have to shy away from difficult conversations, but we must remember that the posture of our hearts during these conversations can help to facilitate their success.

For further guidance, I recommend studying Ephesians 4, which offers great examples of how to keep the unity as we navigate difficult moments or conversations.

H/T to my dear friend, Jean Marie Jobs (founder, Gap Community), who inspired the core idea behind this post. Used with permission.

Want more resources related to better, more productive and biblically faithful discussions on racial unity? Check out our small group curriculum, Reconciled.


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