Background: The Context to Right Conversations

Posted on January 19, 2014

Change the world? Yes please, but first we have to engage our culture. Engage the culture?  First we have to learn to steer clear of destructive conversations.  This is part four in a series on engaging in conversations that make an impact.

To really have the kind of conversations that can be transformational to both individuals and cultures, some key contextual issues must be clear in your own mind and conduct. The following are four key areas that if you are unclear, it is highly likely your conversations will be ineffective, or perhaps even destructive.

It is important to understand that truly, you can have a conversation that actually achieves the opposite of your desired outcome. Parents do it all the time. Well, OK, humans do it all the time. These four keys will help you move in the desired direction, and not shoot yourself in your relational foot.

Tune into these four ideas and watch your conversations, both public, and private become satisfying and transformational.

1. What is your platform in the other person’s life?

This is the foundation for the effectiveness of all the conversation that ensues. If we do not recognize the power of , and the specifics of, the platform we occupy, a in the life of those we are talking to, our words may not even be received, or worse may destroy the very reason we started the conversation in the first place.

On more than one occasion in my 16 years as a professional counselor, someone would bring me “the other” so that I could “straighten them out”.  What a wonderful set up for terrible conversation.

Unless the person across from me, trusted me, and felt I was “for them” I was simply another hired gun, and clearly an ally of the enemy who brought them to the counselors office. And if I am an ally of the enemy, I am an enemy. If, as an enemy, I begin to give input, I have just poisoned the very fruit I would like them to consume. Good advice can quickly become bad relationship.

Platform determines the flavor of every word you speak. Regardless of how good, right, or true your words are, if the flavor is bad, they will not be swallowed.

Parents, if you are at odds with your children relationally, every conversation will taste like conflict. Until you rebuild a platform of relationship, you cannot address any issues without the flavor of conflict over riding all logic, brilliance, zeal, or “because I am your father…” that you might throw at them.

Know your platform in the life of your audience. If your platform does not provide access to both their mind and their heart, then all conversations should be about building that kind of platform. DO NOT proceed into a conversation where you are looking for others to change without a clear understanding of how your words and ideas will be received.

2. What is the subject of the conversation?

Conversation has only three possible subjects; you, some topic, or the other person. It does not necessarily matter what the bulk of your words are about. What determines the subject of a conversation is the focus.

Have you ever had a conversation where the topic appears to be something tangible, but the pervasive atmosphere of the conversation is the insecurity of one of the participants? Insecurity is the subject of that conversation. No matter what information is discussed, insecurity is either addressed, or ignored, and is therefore the topic.

Whether your conversation is comprised of two people in a private setting, or a thread of comments on a public website, the subject of the conversation is best understood as the thing which is the focus. Too often we enter a conversation with one focus, while others are focused on something entirely different.

Many people have conversations, which they think are about topics, but are actually about themselves. How much they know, how clever they are, how right they are. When anyone introduces a topic with absolute insistence that their way is the only right way, and anyone else is bad, wrong, stupid, unworthy, or just plain unclean if they disagree, they re actually talking about themselves and not the imagined topic.

I have actually (and frequently) seen someone use words about the other person, but actually be talking about themself. “Look how good I am at loving you,” is not a statement of love, it is a statement of ego.

A conversation about a topic is characterized by a mutual desire for understanding and connection. All participants are interested in both learning and sharing.  The relational part of the conversation is respectful and open. IN this setting, a topic can be discussed and all participants can walk away having heard, and been heard.

Conversation about the other person is focused on learning about them. Again, a topic, like politics, doctrine, or the polar vortex may be the context for this, but the focus is on truly coming to understand the other person, AND to convey that understanding to them through attention and inquiry.

There is perhaps nothing more off putting than someone who regularly has conversations about themselves, under the guise of “sharing their knowledge” or telling others why they are wrong.

3. Do we assign the same meaning to certain key words?

“I don’t think that word means what you think that word means” says the Spaniard to the Sicilian, and the banter of the Princess Bride continues. It is amazing how often this conversation needs to take place but does not.

This is especially true when discussing our spiritual or religious beliefs.

Over the years, words and meanings disconnect, shift, or take on a different emphasis.

When one person talks about how important their “religion” is to them, someone else hears that as a bad thing. To one, the word “religion” describes a warm and meaningful way that they connect with God. To another, it represents a cold lifeless set of rituals. Neither is “right”. This simply represents the dilemma and limitation of the connection between words and ideas.

We are always trying to share ideas; our inward understanding and representation of a reality. We share those ideas through the use of words. If one word is connected to multiple ideas, (wait…because one word is connected to multiple ideas) then the conversation that follows has no ability to connect people. And oddly, because the conversations continue, the relationship can be harmed and neither participant knows it.

Husbands and wives, experience this difficulty on a regular basis. Different gender, different family background, words and meanings are often so far apart that both wonder why they are unable to come together, but their very words can’t even help them see it.

If we don’t learn to stop and define our words, and clarify our meanings our conversations can actually drive us apart, and push away the very people we wish to influence.

4. What is the goal of the conversation?

Oddly, this part of conversation seldom seems to make it’s way into the actual…conversation. Every conversation has a goal. Perhaps more accurately, every person in a conversation has a goal.

Again, a common way for conversation to become waylaid, is for the participants to have different goals, but none of the participants recognize the differences. Husbands and wives perhaps illustrate this most clearly when one has the goal of accomplishing a task, and the other has the goal of connecting the relationship. When the goal is left unstated, both can think that the other is simply unstable, or uncaring.

Here is where I think we as believers trying to influence the culture need to take our cues from Jesus. If we are not careful our method of conversation can actually undermine our goal for conversation.

Imagine for a moment coming across a car wreck. We find the driver badly injured and partially conscious.

“You know that when that light is red, it means you are supposed to stop.” We might say, as the driver bleeds into a pool at our feet.

“The state law requires that you travel at a rate of speed that allows you to have a safe stopping distance at all times”, we might say, as the driver moans in agony a foot away from us.

If our goal is to demonstrate our knowledge of the law, then we should proceed this way. If the subject of the conversation is ourselves, and our knowledge and rightness, this input is perfectly logical.

But if our goal is to save a life, to actually help people, we might be better served to start by pulling them from the wreckage and getting them to a place where healing can begin. As we aid in their healing and restoration, and learn to make them the subject of our interaction, we might actually develop a platform in their lives where someday we might help them avoid future accidents.

If the goal of our conversations is to rescue people, to help them out of the trap they are in, we must begin by seeing their pain, and making a connection that can begin a healing process.

All four of these conversational keys has the ability to either open or close the door to impact. IN some cases, our lack of awareness in these areas, could lead us to engage in conversations that regularly achieve the exact opposite of our desired outcomes.

God save us from harmful conversations, but deliver us to incarnational conversations that allow us to enter into the lives of the people around us.


  • BabsCoppedge

    Seriously? These just keep getting better.

    “Platform determines the flavor of every word you speak. Regardless of how good, right, or true your words are, if the flavor is bad, they will not be swallowed.” Okay, the parenting paragraph that comes right after this is just stupid good, but this line … it speaks such overarching truth in a simple and concise manner. What’s interesting is that I actually read this the first time as ‘favor’ and not ‘flavor’, which really could work too. If I don’t have relational ‘favor’ (some would say ‘equity’) with a given person, my words are not going to be received, and worse, could come off sounding like preaching, or judging, or hypocritical, or self-righteous, or … you get the point. This really is the diving board into healthy conversations. Without it, the rest of the points can’t even come into play.

    “What determines the subject of a conversation is the focus.” I didn’t fully understand this until I continued to read on. As a perpetual student of life, I had never thought of an emotion being able to be the focus of conversation; but boy, this sentence immediately recalled to mind past conversations and turned on a lightbulb to see what I couldn’t see before–to see why conversations didn’t accomplish anything but actually made things worse. Understanding ‘focus’ now, gosh it just shifted something in me. I will be so aware of this moving forward now.

    “If we don’t learn to stop and define our words and clarify our meanings…” Oh man, I just had to stop here and process for a bit. How many times have I entered into a conversation (mostly with my husband) believing my understanding of a word equaled his, and vice versa? Too many. And the seasons we’ve endured, not even slightly enjoyed, are proof positive of this. Got this. I can see it, and I’m moving forward with this.

    “When the goal is left unstated,…” As I read this, I immediately asked the question (as if someone else were in the room with me) “but what if the stated goals are different from the get-go?” What if one’s goal is to save a life and the other’s goal is to be heard and understood? Do you just not have the conversation then? I’ve had so many of these. Too many. And they usually (read: almost always) turn out disastrously. Frustration. Neither goal reached. And neither person remotely satisfied by the outcome. What if one works (most often) from a starting point of connection and another works (most often) from a starting point of being understood or being heard? In all honesty, this point 4 left me feeling unsettled.

    But to end on a positive note, my take-aways are FLAVOR. FOCUS. CLARITY. GOALS. And on those I will pursue change.

  • Crista

    1. Yes
    2. Yes, yes.
    3. Mmmm-hmmm
    4. Hanky wave.

    I love every minute of this! GREAT explanations and points for self-evaluation!

  • conniemhill

    I’m learning.

  • NorthernLights

    I heard Dr. Michael Brown once say that when you are trying to persuade someone of something, you have to first demonstrate that you understand their argument, AND that you “feel the weight” of their argument. I think that idea could be a huge tool in building a platform in someone’s life, and moving from debate to relationship.

  • ““You know that when that light is red, it means you are supposed to stop.” We might say, as the driver bleeds into a pool at our feet.”

    Oh how well I know this. I’ve been on both sides.