Gracious Communication: Approaching Hard Conversations


In early March 2020, my colleagues and I gathered around the boardroom table in the BioLogos office to discuss the status of an upcoming workshop across the country. What kinds of safety measures should be taken, assuming we even could go forward? Would we be able to fly across the country next month? Should we cancel now? Little did we know how drastically our lives would change over the coming weeks. As the event planner at BioLogos, restrictions on gatherings have personally and professionally affected my life in significant ways ever since.

In my line of work, I regularly witness the power and importance of in-person gatherings—the spark of human connection, the breakdown of barriers. While virtual meeting platforms and social media have been useful tools in staying connected, nothing will ever compare to offering a hug to a loved one in mourning or sharing a meal with family over the holidays.

long table full of table settings and candles

Personally and professionally, I strongly believe that we ought to follow public health measures and be willing to sacrifice for the common good. And I believe that complying with public health measures—such as severely limiting or avoiding gatherings altogether, based on the guidance of public health officials—is a tangible way to love our neighbors and protect the most vulnerable. Nevertheless, I miss that level of connection.

One of the most difficult aspects of the pandemic for me has been navigating relationships with loved ones who aren’t taking the pandemic seriously—especially in regard to gatherings. Finding the occasional wedding invitation in my mailbox or seeing holiday dinner plans being proposed over the family group chat gives me a pit in my stomach. I imagine them spreading a deadly virus to one another—I see them struggling to breathe, all alone in the hospital—and I’m filled with overwhelming dread. More than any other time in my life, I am keenly aware of the preciousness and fragility of human lives and relationships.

With so much at stake, it is essential that we all do our part in encouraging our loved ones to comply with public health measures. That said, in practice these discussions can be incredibly draining and difficult to negotiate.

How do we go about these difficult conversations with our sanity and souls intact? While I very much find myself on the path, not at the destination, the following perspectives have helped me to be a more empathetic, effective, and hopeful communicator with loved ones, in both these pandemic times as well as any other. I hope they are helpful to you.

Be Mindful of the Broader Context

Like me, you’ve probably had many discussions recently with loved ones about a variety of complex topics from politics, to justice, to public health. As important and necessary as these conversations are, I think, on some level, we’re all struggling with how the forces of polarization in our society are affecting our personal lives. This context can make having yet another difficult conversation—like cancelling Christmas dinner or celebrating a birthday virtually—especially emotionally charged and raw. Being mindful of the broader context is essential in helping us to engage in difficult conversations with a spirit of patience and understanding. If we have communicated our concerns or frustrations to our loved ones in harmful ways in the past, it’s important that we seek forgiveness and reconciliation.

Ask Clarifying Questions

In my attempts to convince my loved ones to comply with public health measures, I have found that it is all too easy to passionately recite the latest death count or describe the newest terrifying symptom. But I’ve become convinced that starting difficult conversations from a place of gentle curiosity (not interrogation!) is far more trust-building and, ultimately, a more effective communication strategy. I’ve found it helpful to ask questions like: “When you say [this], do you mean [this]?” “Am I understanding your perspective correctly?” and “Can you help me to better understand your perspective?” 

Asking clarifying questions is not only helpful in ensuring that my loved ones feel understood and respected, it’s also important for me so that I can dismantle any bad-faith assumptions I may have constructed. You might be concerned that asking clarifying questions could be misconstrued as enabling poor choices or co-signing perspectives you don’t agree with. In practice, asking questions has allowed me and my loved ones to discover unexpected points of agreement and has opened up opportunities for us to extend empathy to one another. I have also found that asking clarifying questions has helped my loved ones to be more willing to hear me out when it’s my turn to share my perspective.


It breaks my heart how easy it is to reduce my loved ones to the sum of their bad decisions and bad ideas.

Morganna Downing

Speak the Truth in Love

In the age of rampant conspiracy theories and disinformation, it’s important that we tell the truth. And the truth is that public health measures, like limiting and avoiding gatherings, are essential, practical steps we all need to take for the sake of the common good. We Christians need to remember that we are not only called to speak the truth—we’re called to speak the truth in love, for the sake of the maturity and unity of the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:15). As Christian thought leader and Pastor Tim Keller writes, “Love without truth is sentimentality; it supports and affirms us but keeps us in denial about our flaws. Truth without love is harshness; it gives us information but in such a way that we cannot really hear it.” We need to pray for a spirit of discernment to help us to speak the truth in love—not the truth in fear, not the truth in judgment, not the truth in shame.

Discern

A spirit of discernment is also necessary to determine when it’s appropriate for us to avoid unproductive conversations altogether and when it’s time to disengage. I do not say this to absolve us from having difficult yet necessary discussions. But we can all recognize that, in our social media obsessed culture, it is easy to compulsively share our beliefs and opinions without much regard for when and how we’re communicating. It has been important for me to be humble enough to recognize that I might not be the person God is prompting to engage at this very moment, with this specific person. A longtime friend, a trusted mentor, or a spouse might be better suited to have this discussion than I am. When discerning whether or not I ought to engage, I have found it helpful to ask myself: Do I have the time and energy to engage in this conversation with the care and curiosity it requires? Do I have an established relationship with this person? Are my heart and mind ready to have a productive and gracious conversation with this individual? Do I feel the spirit leading me to engage in this discussion? 

woman in ponytail talking on a phone

Knowing our boundaries is important for the sake of our own mental health and for the health of our relationships. Both parties are responsible for their tone and choice of words, and we need to give ourselves permission to end the conversation if we sense it is taking a demeaning or unsafe turn. If we feel ourselves losing control of our words in the heat of the moment, we need to end the conversation before we inflict lasting harm. And we do not need to feel guilty for insisting that our loved ones engage with us in helpful, functional, and productive ways. Perhaps the conversation continues on a better day. Perhaps not. Either way, ending the conversation does not stop us for praying for our loved ones or from modeling public health compliant behavior ourselves.

Have Hope

At various points throughout the pandemic, I have found myself feeling so hopeless. How should I react when loved ones say that public health measures are unnecessary? When they host ill-advised gatherings? When they pressure others to test the boundaries of what is safe? I’ve felt anger. I’ve felt disappointment. I’ve felt anxious. I’ve felt grief. It’s been so tempting to demonize or shame them for making poor choices. I admit, in moments of frustration, I have. Why is it so hard to wear a mask? How could you be so careless with your life and with the lives of people around you? Why are you so selfish? If you haven’t taken this seriously yet with all of the death and suffering around us, you never will.

It breaks my heart how easy it is to reduce my loved ones to the sum of their bad decisions and bad ideas.

It breaks my heart to confess how tempting it is to turn my loved ones into enemies.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul implores that we “make every effort to keep the unity of the spirit through the bonds of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). I have come to realize that it is impossible to have unity or peace with people for whom I have no hope. No, I cannot change my loved ones—they have to do that for themselves. And, yes, the reality is that they may never take the pandemic seriously, to the detriment of themselves and the people around them. But if I have no hope for them—if I deny their capacity to change their behavior, and their minds, and their hearts—then there is no point in engaging, or encouraging, or mending, or collaborating, or praying for them. So in the spirit of hope, let’s seek peace and unity.


Morganna Downing
About the Author

Morganna Downing

Morganna Downing serves as BioLogos' Operations Coordinator. Morganna earned her BA in English literature from Calvin College. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her husband, Austin, and their darling cats, Finn and Poe.
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At BioLogos, “gracious dialogue” means demonstrating the grace of Christ as we dialogue together about the tough issues of science and faith.

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