The Table Podcast

Beginning Difficult Conversations

In this episode, Drs. Darrell L. Bock, Gary Barnes, and Michelle Woody discuss healthy ways to engage in difficult conversations.

Difficult Conversations on Diversity
  1. Beginning Difficult Conversations
  2. Learning from Difficult Conversations on Diversity
Timecodes
00:15
The importance of listening in difficult conversations
08:17
How to develop understanding in difficult conversations
11:13
How to build trust in difficult conversations
17:38
How to understand each other while having different views
24:44
How to disagree well
31:34
How to understand tolerance
39:20
A theological perspective of difficult conversations
44:59
The role of the gospel in difficult conversations
Transcript
Dr. Darrell Bock
Welcome to The Table where we discuss issues of God and culture. I’m Darrell Bock, Executive Director for Cultural Engagement at the Hendricks Center at Dallas Theological Seminary. And my guests today are Michelle woody and Gary Barnes who both each in the psychology program here, the counseling program here at Dallas Seminary.

And our topic – I almost hate to say it – is “Difficult Conversations.” There are times and situations where we, in a variety of settings in which we walk into a conversation we know is gonna be difficult, where we know there’s disagreement, and those conversations can either provide an opportunity for mutually benefiting the participants, or it can blow up. And so, we want to talk about those conversations and what’s involved in them.

And let me begin this way, Michelle, with you. What are the dangers in pursuing a difficult conversation? What are some of the things that we do that can damage the possibility of actually making progress in such a conversation? And maybe a second question – bad to ask two questions at once, but I’ll do it –

Dr. Michelle Woody
That’s all right.
Dr. Darrell Bock
– is what are the pitfalls in pursing difficult conversations? Why are they important to pursue? Let me say it that way.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Okay. Well, first of all, one of the major issues that can come up right away is not hearing the other person; hearing only what you want to hear and hearing it through the lens of your own perception, your own values and what you stand for vs. what they’ve actually said.

So, that leads, oftentimes, to a downward spiral of someone hearing incorrectly. And because of that, they now want to be right. And now, if I have to be right, I have to present my position, and now that leads to defenses and people not hearing because they’re too busy being right.

Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah. I often say that if you go into a conversation with an agenda, you’re actually not interested in a conversation.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Exactly.
Dr. Darrell Bock
And so, the tension becomes how to engage in a good conversation well. And what I’m hearing you say – and maybe you want to elaborate on this a little bit, Gary – is really the key to having a good conversation first is being a good listener.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yes. You know, when we are bumping into differences, there’s these underlying things that are driving within us of, “Will I be accepted or will I be rejected with my difference?”

And so, one of my natural ways of thinking, to come out on the good end of that, is if I can win over the difference. And even if you win you lose in terms of the relational outcome and also having the opportunity to really understand the difference.

And so, a big, big part of it is just being aware of what’s going on within me that makes a difficult conversation difficult. So, I think that’s really the first most important thing is that awareness personally of what is it that’s kind of welling up within me that becomes a barrier for me actually moving towards the other person with their difference.

Dr. Darrell Bock
OK. So, I often say that difficult conversations have kind of three layers to them. There’s what you’re talking about, and then there’s the filter through which you’re looking at what you’re talking about, and then there’s the way your identity or your perception of yourself – what’s at stake in what I’m talking about, but your perception of that.

And oftentimes, people think they’re only talking about the top layer, and they don’t think about the other two layers. But the other two layers are actually driving what’s happening in the conversations.

Dr. Gary Barnes
Yes.
Dr. Michelle Woody
That’s true.
Dr. Darrell Bock
So, how do you peel away the onion? I mean how do you take that – how do you move past the top layer and think about kinda what’s underneath?
Dr. Michelle Woody
So, one of the things, I think, again, most people subconsciously – whether they’re aware of it or not, whether they acknowledge that they like sports or not – the whole winning and losing is a part of our conversation; it’s a part of how we communicate with each other; I have to be – again, I have to win in this conversation. We’re trying to negotiate what we’re gonna do at home or what the budget’s gonna be; I’m losing if I don’t get whatever it is I’m trying to get out of this: the big screen TV, or the window treatments if it’s on the other side – if it’s a couple. They have to –
Dr. Darrell Bock
Oh, I’ve got the TV for sure.
Dr. Michelle Woody
So, that’s one thing. But again, I don’t think that each person – when they’re in this difficult conversation, I don’t think that they are aware of their own self-awareness. They’re not aware that they automatically – the default is, “I’ve got to win, and I’ve got to make sure I can persuade you, or by force you’re gonna let me do what I want to do in this conversation.”

So, active listening, again, that’s where we have to start. And without it, the other side of that – and you mentioned it earlier – is when those hidden agendas come in, you’re not hearing any longer.

Dr. Darrell Bock
Okay. So, there’s a little test that I like to run, kind of the Emergency Broadcast System, when a difficult conversation’s going on, and that – I can tell whether I’m in the right mode or not to actually advance the conversation. And that is, when the person is talking to me, am I actually paying attention to what they’re saying, or am I thinking through what my response is gonna be in light of what they’re saying?

Usually, if I’m in a combative mode, or I have an agenda, then I’m in default rebuttal mode in terms of engaging with the person. Are there other indicators of how you can sense whether you’re being open to what the person is saying other than that?

Dr. Gary Barnes
So, I really like your guideline. I think that’s kind of your first level of awareness that you can come up with. If you can kinda take it to another level below that, if you’re able to say to yourself, “You know, I could 100 percent understand you, even though I’m 100 percent disagreeing with you.”

So, how do I listen to you in a way that I’m actually gonna be able to let you know I’m understanding whatever it is you want me to understand.

Dr. Darrell Bock
M-kay. And a good way to do that is, I think sometimes, to engage the person by saying something like, “Can I put what you’ve just said to me in different words? And are you comfortable with the way I’m expressing this? Am I hearing what you’re saying?”
Dr. Gary Barnes
Exactly.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Yes. And wait to hear the response to that.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Response, that’s right.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yeah.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah. Which means you’ve got to be open to the way that is being perceived as well.
Dr. Michelle Woody
That’s right. But the other is also even the nonverbal communication. That’s almost as important as what is said. So, if you’re closed, if you tighten up – exactly –
Dr. Gary Barnes
Okay, come at me.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Rolling your eyes.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Rolling your eyes, turning to the side away from the person you’re communicating with – you know, these are the things we go through in sessions to talk to –
Dr. Darrell Bock
Interesting. Huh.
Dr. Michelle Woody
– people about these things.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Okay. So, I walk into a difficult conversation, and I’ve got these dimensions going on of things that are happening. I’ve got to be aware of kind of what’s happening with me as I walk into it. I also think that sometimes reflecting on the goal – what the goal of the conversation is important.

We’ve already mentioned, in just our initial exchanges, that oftentimes the goal is, “Well, I’ve gotta win this conversation. I gotta get what I want in one way or another.” We say that in one way or another.

And there’s a whole nother conversation – probably a whole nother podcast – about the way in which there are oftentimes power dynamics at work in these conversations that are in play, depending on how those conversations are perceived and the relative positions of the people participating, and that kind of thing. But we’ll stay out of that for now.

And as we move into trying to engage, the first goal, in a good conversation, is probably the goal to simply understand each other.

Dr. Michelle Woody
Yes.
Dr. Gary Barnes
If I know I’m moving into a conversation where I’m already anticipating there’s differences and that it could be a difficult conversation, if I can divide it up into a two-part process, right from the beginning, and if the other person’s doing that as well, that’s helpful.

And my part one total goal and strategy is built around understanding. That’s it.

Dr. Darrell Bock
And primarily what we mean by “understanding” is understanding the other person.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Yes.
Dr. Gary Barnes
There would be mutual understanding as the outcome of the difficult conversation.
Dr. Darrell Bock
But I’ve got to open myself up to the other person in order to get that.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Totally.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Okay.
Dr. Gary Barnes
And so, the strategies that match up with that goal is that I don’t talk in a way where there’s a winner and a loser; there’s no talking where there’s actually persuasion; there’s no rule that we need to reach agreement, in part one, while we’re talking. The goal is simply to concisely express, “Here’s what I think; here’s how I feel; this is what I expect,” in a way that the person can receive it.

A lot of times, we’re not being heard because, as the speaker, we’re getting in the way of the other person hearing us. We’re actually promoting a defensive response back from them.

Dr. Michelle Woody
And when we get to that, there’s no safety, and then there’s no trust; the trust starts to break down. So, you don’t get those “I” statements coming now because it’s not safe to reveal that that’s how I feel.
Dr. Darrell Bock
M-kay. Well, so, let’s – you’ve raised the issue of trust which I think is important here. Because when I go into a difficult conversation, I may be having that conversation with someone with whom I have a relationship and who I can trust.

I may walk into difficult conversations where I either don’t – where I either don’t trust the person, I don’t know the person well enough to have any capital – you know, any conversational relational capital to draw upon.

So, this commitment to understand really has to be – particularly the less well I know the person, or the more hostile I might be towards the person going in – really has to be a self-commitment – doesn’t it? – to the nature of the conversation and the way I’m gonna pursue it?

Dr. Gary Barnes
Yes. I mean you have to be committed to a process of growing trust and safety. And so –
Dr. Darrell Bock
You mean nurturing it?
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yeah. Well, you have to do your part, and you give the opportunity for the other person to do their part.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Okay.
Dr. Gary Barnes
And you don’t start with your deepest stuff; you start at kinda at your upper level. And as you have an exchange of cordial, kind, respectful reception back and forth, that’s the thing that says, “Okay, that was kind of safe, and I can trust you to give you something a little deeper than that.”

So, you don’t just assume trust, and you don’t just grant trust; it gets established in the exchange as you grow to deeper and deeper exchanges with one another.

Dr. Michelle Woody
Right. So, one of the examples – just in sitting here, I think about every time we have our holiday break, Thanksgiving break, right before that time, typically in classes I’ll have the conversation, “Well, you’re gonna be at home with your families this week.”
Dr. Darrell Bock
Oh, I know what this – what’s going on.
Dr. Michelle Woody
“How is that conversation gonna go?” And no matter – it never fails, it opens up the Pandora’s box, and everybody has to say how they always feel they’re on the short end of what the aunt or the uncle, the grandparents, or even the parents.
Dr. Darrell Bock
There’s someone; there’s someone who’s –
Dr. Michelle Woody
Somebody’s there who, you know, they know it’s gonna be difficult and – but not only that, they don’t feel heard. And so, what we talk about often, I say, “Well, wait a minute. We have to talk about –”

“Well, they never” – they never or they always – “blow me off.”

I said, “Well, first of all, if they’re absolutes” – that’s probably not accurate, but even if it is – “stop playing the same old tape.”

And that also breaks or breaches that relationship and that trust factor, because you’re playing the old tape, “He always said it this way. He didn’t want me to think about things in this way.”

Dr. Darrell Bock
So, I go in with an expectation that’s undermining what’s getting ready to –
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yeah, yeah.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Exactly. So, you’re already defeating the whole opportunity to hear, to listen, and to be open.”
Dr. Gary Barnes
And if you’re wired that way at the beginning, your start-up is gonna be a harsh start-up, not a soft start-up. Researchers tell us that the direction of a difficult conversation is totally gonna be determined in the first three minutes of that conversation.

So, you want to be very, very intentional at the very beginning. And even if you – you’re needing to identify and discuss gripes, you can package that in constructive ways. See? But the way you package, the way you deliver, especially in that first three minutes, that’s going to really determine – even if you have a three-hour conversation after that, that’s all determined in the first three minutes.

Dr. Darrell Bock
M-kay. So, I can hear someone listening to this, and – and, you know, of course, this applies to a whole range of conversations –
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yes.
Dr. Darrell Bock
You know? We’ve highlighted the family; that’s obviously a transparent one. In fact, the first time I gave a talk on difficult conversations, I was in a political environment.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yeah?
Dr. Darrell Bock
I was speaking at an event called Christians in Public Service, and it was about local politicians and the work that they do as local politicians. And I was walking through this, and I took 30 minutes to introduce the topic before we had our conversation about it.

And the first hand goes up, and it’s a woman sitting over here, and she said, “I think you just helped me with my marriage.”

Dr. Gary Barnes
Yes, yes.
Dr. Darrell Bock
You know? So, obviously, we’re talking about a process that can be in the family; it can be at the workplace; it can be about politics; it can even be, to a certain degree, how I communicate in context where I’m not face to face with somebody, how I engage them, et cetera.

And I think the pushback that sometimes initially comes is, well, when I go into a conversation, particularly about something I care about or something I have a conviction about, and particularly – I mean one of the discourses is gonna be religious discourse – I’m gonna go in and I’m gonna have a conviction.

Dr. Gary Barnes
Yeah.
Dr. Darrell Bock
I have something I deeply believe. So, the question becomes, “Well, doesn’t this undermine – doesn’t this whole approach risk undermining what I believe? And why should I go into a conversation that does that?”
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yeah, and that’s a very natural and automatic process. And if you follow that approach, it actually undermines the whole outcome of being able to actually be understood.

And so, your convictions have a way less chance of ever being heard if you take that approach going into it.

Dr. Darrell Bock
So, in other words, if I’m constantly pushing back on the other person, and constantly kind of in the rebuttal mode, not only have my phaser shields gone up, but I’m gonna produce phaser shields on the other side that’s actually gonna block the communication.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yeah, yeah.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Yes, yes.
Dr. Gary Barnes
So much of the time we’re not being heard, because as the speaker, we’re getting in the way of the hearing that we’re desiring. And so, it is not true that understanding means I’ve compromised my convictions.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Mm-hmm.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Okay, now this is something I want to talk about –
Dr. Michelle Woody
That’s important.
Dr. Darrell Bock
– ’cause I think this is a very important idea: that understanding is not the same as agreement.
Dr. Gary Barnes
That’s right.
Dr. Darrell Bock
And so, if understanding is not the same as agreement, this is why you can divide up your conversations in terms of a process first of getting to understanding. And I like to tell people, “If you get to the point where you both are mutually agreed on what it is exactly that you’re talking about and what the nature of your differences are, you’re in a better place to talk about those differences than when – if you’re talking past one another, or you’re not even talking to one another.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yeah.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Right.
Dr. Darrell Bock
And so, to have the ability to articulate what someone else is saying to you is not saying you agree with that; it’s saying, “I am hearing what you are saying, and we both understand that I understand what it is you’re saying to me.”
Dr. Gary Barnes
A great guideline for the differences, on either side, entering into the difficult conversation, is to say, “We can 100 percent understand each other, even if we 100 percent disagree with each other.” So, understanding does not equal agreement.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Okay. So – and that just takes work – doesn’t it? – to get there.
Dr. Gary Barnes
It goes against our inner human self-protection. We have to fight against ourselves.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Okay. So, this takes a discipline. Any advice on what that really takes? I mean we’ve already said some things: shut off your tendency to respond, try and listen in such a way that you can repeat what it is that someone else is saying to you.

What role does having some sense of – I don’t know how else to say this – having some sense of empathy for or connection with the other person, being willing to hear something different? Again, not because you’re gonna agree with it, but because you understand that by doing that, you’re gonna advance your opportunity to actually have a better conversation.

Dr. Michelle Woody
I actually think “empathy” is a very good word in this context because you really have to try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, get some sense of what their journey is and what they’re doing.

Along with that, I would say it takes patience. Something else that most people don’t like and what’s awkward and uncomfortable for them are moments of silence. Moments of silence are deafening. And so, because of that, the natural tendency is, “I have to fill in; I have to jump in.” And not giving people a chance to process what’s being said is also important.

So, a part of understanding is not just listening, but waiting for the person to respond and then take time to process that in a way that’s not forced or awkward.

Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah. The metaphor I like to use for this is getting a GPS on someone, figuring out what their position – what their position is and why they’re positioned there.

And in spiritual conversations, I think that’s very, very important because there might be an experience in their past or something like that that has predisposed them to look at their spiritual experience in a certain way. And if you can discover that that’s there, that actually helps you connect and empathize with the person and why they might be reacting in the way they are.

Because another thing that we tend to do that undercuts conversations is we’ll impute motive –

Dr. Gary Barnes
Yes.
Dr. Darrell Bock
– to why it is someone is saying something. They may not have given any indication that that’s what’s going on. And in fact, that may not be what’s motivating them, but we will read it through our filters in such a way that we will assume, “This is why you’re telling me this,” –
Dr. Michelle Woody
Yes.
Dr. Darrell Bock
– and respond at that level.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yeah. One of the phrases that researchers use for that is a “negative interpretation.” And so, when I’m looking at something in the moment, in the preset, I tend to look through lenses that shape what I’m looking at.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Okay, that’s our second layer.
Dr. Gary Barnes
And so, the lenses typically do have a basis to them, but they’re most often a basis that’s historical and not related to this present moment.

And so, as I’m looking, I’m getting a different picture of what I’m looking at because my lenses are changing the filtering of what I’m seeing and understanding. And then that sets me up to naturally and automatically attach a wrong meaning, understanding, interpretation, motivation, conclusion – that’s not even what’s going on in the present.

Dr. Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Right.
Dr. Gary Barnes
See? And so, it’s an easy thing to see somebody else do, but it’s a hard thing to see yourself do because your perception becomes your reality. But we need to be teachable, to be open to those kinds of lenses that we’re looking through.
Dr. Darrell Bock
M-kay. So, we’ve used two metaphors here to talk about the exchange: one is a phaser shield that’s kind of a defensive block, and the other are these lenses that we put on that impact the way we perceive. And in many ways, what we’re saying is we need to do the best we can to lower the phaser shield and to try – and you can’t do this entirely –
Dr. Gary Barnes
Take off the lenses.
Dr. Darrell Bock
– take off the lenses.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Take off the lenses, right.
Dr. Darrell Bock
You can’t do this entirely, but you can – if you make the effort to listen to what someone else is saying to you, and you do it without feeling the risk of, “I’m agreeing with what I’m hearing,” I give myself the chance of actually hearing what it is that the other person is trying to say to me.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yes.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Yes.
Dr. Darrell Bock
And that’s a great start –
Dr. Gary Barnes
And it opens up amazing opportunities for personal transformation. The exchange itself gives you more opportunity for personal growth than not having the exchange of the difficult conversation.
Dr. Darrell Bock
And so, you might actually – imagine this – learn and grow from the conversation. Language
Dr. Michelle Woody
How refreshing will that be? [Laughs] Yes.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Okay. So, I think we’ve kind of laid out the – kinda the ground rules on the understanding side. Let’s deal a little bit with moving towards that, that as you’re pursuing a difficult conversation in your – if you can get both people to pursue the goal of mutually understanding one another, I’m gonna have the ability to say to you what you’ve said to me and vice versa.

And we’re gonna get to the point, hopefully, in the midst of this conversation, that we can identify what it is that we are actually talking about, ’cause that’s actually part of the goal.

The understanding phase is to actually pinpoint not what you think is going on, or what you have intuited has gone on, but what actually is, at least in the perceptions of the participants, what their mutual perception is about what’s going on and the nature of those differences.

Dr. Michelle Woody
Yes.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Then you put yourself in a little bit of an assessment mode. Now, I mentioned someone listening to us – you know, we’re about halfway through – goes, “All right, I can see where this might be helpful, but there’s a little part of me that says I have my convictions, and I don’t want to me moved. I mean I’ve thought about this” – maybe it’s a moral issue or whatever – “I don’t want to be moved. So, one, why would I pursue this in this way, and two, is – are we talking about a giving up of convictions because we’re entering into this kind of a conversation?”
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yeah. So, just because you’re entering into a conversation of mutual understanding doesn’t mean that the change that can come from that means you’re giving up your convictions. It might involve a readjusting of some convictions that you have, but you might actually, after a mutual understanding conversation, even be more strongly convicted about your convictions. Okay?

But what you’re also doing is you’re placing yourself in a interaction with someone where you’re being teachable. As well as learning about them, you’re learning about yourself. I don’t know what I don’t know. I have blind spots, but I don’t know how that’s affecting me, and it’s in that exchange that I get opportunities to learn what those are.

Dr. Michelle Woody
But again, we have to let the shield down and not be so tight in our nonverbal communication and in our – even our expressions so that the message can be received. Because if I’m not believing that you’re even taking me seriously, I’m not gonna share – or I’m not gonna share authentically.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Okay. So, again, just to kind of pull this together, sometimes I think we think conversations are kind of all or nothing conversations. And what I mean by that is I have my convictions; I have the thing I want to defend, particularly if it’s a conversation about ideas. And so, I know where my ground is. I’ve grown up all my life with this point of view, that kind of thing, and I’m all in.

But what I think we’re slow to see, and what I think this process does oftentimes times play with in reality, is it may not be an all-or-nothing conversation. It may be that there are certain things that I see – using your blind spots picture – that need tweaking, that need nuancing, that what’s something I may treat as an absolute may not, in fact, be an absolute.

An illustration
I was on e-mail yesterday with a student graduate of ours, and we were discussing something related to Islam. And his perception of Islam was strictly negative. And I was sending him an article about a visit of a Christian dignitary to the Middle East. And in the midst of this, his response was, “Well, I just don’t believe anything positive can come of this.”

And so – and I’m sitting here saying, “So, are you telling me that every Muslim that you’ve met automatically goes kind of a negative meter in effect?

And basically, he was saying, “Yes.”

And I said, “Well, have you met and had conversations with many Muslims? Have you actually seen what they think about certain areas?”

And he wrote me back and said, “Well, not that many.”

And so, we pursued this. And what I was actually doing, in that conversation, was to try and tweak, for lack of a better description. It wasn’t that I was denying that there isn’t an element of Islam to be concerned about, from a Christian point of view, but it was to say that if I evaluate every Muslim through the same lens and see them all the same way in this generic kind of way, that somehow I might miss something that’s coming at me that actually creates an opportunity as opposed to necessarily being something I need to be defensive about.

Dr. Gary Barnes
Yeah.
Dr. Darrell Bock
And that’s a tweak; that’s not an all-or-nothing end thing.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Right.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Right. So, you do have that going on at that level, but you also have – let’s stick with your example –
Dr. Darrell Bock
Okay.
Dr. Gary Barnes
– there’s a whole new realm of awareness and understanding that he could get about himself that says, “What is it about me that has to look at things that way?”
Dr. Michelle Woody
Mm-hmm.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Okay, okay.
Dr. Gary Barnes
See?
Dr. Michelle Woody
Mm-hmm.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah.
Dr. Gary Barnes
That’s a way more significant and important opportunity for him to come to terms with.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Right. And in fact, this is a student with whom I have regular exchanges. They’ve graduated, but – and the consistent thing that happens in our exchanges, ’cause we almost never agree on anything, is his tendency to pursue everything on a binary basis.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yes.
Dr. Darrell Bock
It’s an all-or-nothing model. There’s almost no spectrum to deal with in the conversation, et cetera. And most of my interaction with him isn’t because I necessarily entirely disagree with where he’s coming from, but the way in which he comes at it and the way in which he so starkly contrasts what his options are says, “You’re missing a whole series of possibilities in here that you could be considering and thinking about.”
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yeah. So, it goes back to your model of – if he’s stuck at the facts and events level, where his biggest opportunity is at his personal level, why is it that I have to have that way of looking at everything in life?
Dr. Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Win/lose.
Dr. Gary Barnes
yeah.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Dr. Michelle Woody
We’re back to that.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Self-awareness is based on my perception, who I am, my experience, and I’ve got to win.
Dr. Darrell Bock
But one level in that win or lose perspective is – and I think it particularly applies especially to religious discourse – is this perception of being right or wrong. You know?
Dr. Gary Barnes
right.
Dr. Darrell Bock
That there’s something fundamentally at stake, in the convictions that I have, which makes me tenacious, if I can say it that way.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Yes.
Dr. Darrell Bock
And wresting with that dimension of these dynamics, I think, is also very, very, very important in thinking through this picture between conviction and conversation. And let’s introduce another word here – and, Gary, I know you want to speak to this – an issue of tolerance. How do – let’s juxtapose those things for a second and see how they – how they’re a part of this conversation about conversations.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Right. You know, in our day and age now, we’ve really shined bright lights on the ugliness of intolerance –
Dr. Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Mm-hmm.
Dr. Gary Barnes
And that’s a good thing.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Dr. Gary Barnes
We’re glad for that. But the unfortunate solution to that has become tolerance.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Dr. Gary Barnes
And tolerance is not our answer for intolerance. What we really need is something that’s gonna take us way beyond both intolerance and tolerance. And I think that’s really where the gospel comes in to help us on this.
Dr. Michelle Woody
That’s right.
Dr. Gary Barnes
If you really break it down, you could say, “Okay, there’s – if you just take intolerance, that’s about exclusion.” And you can exclude in two different ways: you can expel somebody, or you can subjugate somebody. Like, “Get away from me or I’ll get away from you.” Okay?
Dr. Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Dr. Gary Barnes
But there’s another way to exclude, and that is, “Okay, we can live in the same town, but you live on that side of town, and I’ll live on this side of town. We’ll play by my rules in terms of how we relate with one another.” So, that’s all intolerance that we don’t want to have as our solution to things.

But if you think about tolerance, it’s really a sneaky exclusion, because what tolerance becomes is a commitment to assimilation to where, you know, if you have the truth, then that becomes excluding. And so, in order for us to be included, nobody can have truth.

Dr. Michelle Woody
And that’s where – that’s where a lot of our Millennials are. That’s where a lot of our middle schoolers and high schoolers are.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Dr. Michelle Woody
I have a position, and I have a thought, but if I want to be in the in crowd, I’ve got to now keep that to myself and be – play along with whatever topic is on the table so that I can be a part of the group.
Dr. Darrell Bock
M-kay. So –
Dr. Michelle Woody
That’s what’s dangerous.
Dr. Darrell Bock
So – and that has to do with, obviously, one sense of belonging and how I am or am not a part of a group, et cetera. That’s one –
Dr. Gary Barnes
So, tolerance does have in mind a good outcome of inclusion, but the basis of the inclusion is the exclusion of differences. It’s the exclusion of my truth vs. your truth.
Dr. Darrell Bock
And there’s something – I’m gonna use this word – there’s something “inauthentic” about that.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Totally.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Very. Very. Very.
Dr. Gary Barnes
It’s a very superficial way of being connected.
Dr. Michelle Woody
And if you’re doing that for a very long time in your formative years, guess what happens by the time you’re a young adult? You don’t have those thoughts. You haven’t been able to formulate those thoughts, and you don’t have the capacity to understand and hear yourself doing that because you’ve been in this tolerant –
Dr. Darrell Bock
You can get so assimilated –
Dr. Michelle Woody
Assimilated.
Dr. Darrell Bock
– you become assimilated.
Dr. Michelle Woody
True, exactly.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yeah.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Yes.
Dr. Darrell Bock
So, then I think the tension becomes how do you participate in this process which I think we’re affirming is a helpful process to first understand and then do your assessment? I don’t think we’ve said that explicitly, but that’s really what we’re talking about. How do you participate in the situation and do so with an authenticity that, one, is open to learn on the one hand, but also is willing to take a stand on the other?
Dr. Gary Barnes
Right. So, I’m – this is a thing I would describe with three Hs. Okay?
Dr. Darrell Bock
Okay.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Head: having right information. Hand: being skillful, acquiring the skills to actually have difficult conversations. But the third we don’t talk about enough, but I think it’s at the core, and that’s the heart. Okay?

And so, it’s – if I’m not operating from a freed heart, I’m not gonna be able to apply the information and the skills. I mean there’s guys that write books, they’re experts on marriage, who get divorced. Okay?

Dr. Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Mm-hmm.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Mm-hmm.
Dr. Gary Barnes
It’s not because they didn’t have the right information and the skills.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Right.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Right.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Right.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Okay?
Dr. Darrell Bock
They just had a bad partner.
Dr. Gary Barnes
There was a barrier for their personal wholeness that got in the way of applying the information and the skills.
Dr. Michelle Woody
And probably going back historically – right? –
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yeah.
Dr. Michelle Woody
– for a long time in the past.
Dr. Gary Barnes
And, you know, you can think about this both theologically and psychologically. It goes back to vertical relationships and horizontal relationships. See?

So, everybody starts off with a vertical relationship of some kind of a caregiver. Right? Maybe a mother, maybe not, but in the experience of that vertical relationship, if the caregiver is whole and healthy enough to give in a relationship that’s one way, not mutual, that helps to shape a secure attachment and identity development for that individual.

Dr. Darrell Bock
Which allows them to trust and those kinds of –
Dr. Gary Barnes
Which then allows them to have a whole different playing field on how they connect in horizontal relationships in the future.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Right, got it.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Mm-hmm.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Okay. There’s no such thing as a perfect caregiver. So, we’re all working with deficits and gaps. Caregivers all have combinations of moving against us and moving away from us. And so, we’re all wounded in our development of ourselves. And as we try to relate horizontally, we’re not free in that. And so, that’s why we have to win; I can’t lose.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Right.
Dr. Gary Barnes
See?
Dr. Michelle Woody
Right.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Because this relationship is not just about me understanding you; this is about myself and how do I become a whole person? See? And it’s really the gospel where we have the possibility, through another vertical relationship, of redemption: a redemption of self.

And so, my identity becomes freed up from all those expectations I put into future horizontal relationships.

Dr. Darrell Bock
Because the acceptance issue is resolved in the vertical relationship with God.
Dr. Gary Barnes
That’s not in play. And so, you could really totally blow away my beliefs, and that’s not a – that’s not a hit on who I am. See? You could even falsely represent my position, and I don’t have to be defensive about that. You could falsely charge me with things that I didn’t do, and I don’t have to defend that because the real reason is there’s worse things than that that you don’t even know about. And so, why am I gonna spend time defending that thing. See?
Dr. Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Dr. Gary Barnes
I’m freed up to move into an engagement in another horizontal relationship where my acceptance and approval is not dependent.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Mm-hmm.
Dr. Darrell Bock
M-kay. So – and that obviously lowers the stakes in the conversation and opens up the possibilities for what’s going on.

Let’s introduce another model, another picture, ’cause I think this is helpful, too. When I’m in a conversation, I can – there’re really, probably, basically three ways to respond. I can move against someone.

Dr. Michelle Woody
Mm-hmm.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yes.
Dr. Darrell Bock
I can withdraw and just pull out.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yes.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Okay?
Dr. Michelle Woody
Yes.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Or I can move toward someone.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Exactly.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Mm-hmm.
Dr. Darrell Bock
And maybe in the midst of a certain conversation, I may move between those different positions at different points in the conversation. I may find myself pushed and pulled a little bit.
Dr. Gary Barnes
We all do all of those things.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Yes.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah, that’s right. So – but the commitment of moving toward someone is a commitment – I’ll put a theological layer on this, and the great commandment, this vertical/horizontal thing is no accident. The great commandment is love God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Right.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Yes, yes.
Dr. Darrell Bock
It has a core vertical element; it has a core horizontal element.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Exactly.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Yes.
Dr. Darrell Bock
And it’s very clear from the Scripture that my neighbor is anybody. It’s not – I don’t get to pick and choose –
Dr. Michelle Woody
Who my neighbor is.
Dr. Darrell Bock
– who my neighbor is.
Dr. Gary Barnes
That’s right.
Dr. Darrell Bock
So, the gospel’s call is for us to be good neighbors to everybody. You know? I’m thinking of the old Mr. Rogers – you know, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yes.
Dr. Michelle Woody
I know.
Dr. Darrell Bock
And to which the answer is, “Well, actually, you don’t have a choice.”
Dr. Darrell Bock
And so – but how do I function as a good neighbor? What we’re talking about, in these conversations, is a way to actually work towards being a good neighbor.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Mm-hmm.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yes. And so, I think that’s really the good news of the gospel, and that’s why Jesus says, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
Dr. Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Yes.
Dr. Gary Barnes
And so, how did He do that? In contrast to the tolerance, they have a good goal of inclusion, but it was at the sacrifice of having truths, where there’s no room for us to have conflicting truths in our connection.
So, what Christ did – you know, Romans 15
7, “Accept others as you have been received by Christ.” He moved towards me when I was against Him, at His ultimate cost. See? And so, He – on the cross, He was not tolerant of me. On the cross, He actually spoke the ugly truth about my condition. But He loved me so much that He chose to die in light of that ugly truth.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm. He didn’t make me pay for it; He paid for it.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Exactly. See?
Dr. Darrell Bock
Okay.
Dr. Gary Barnes
And so, that’s connecting grace. That’s the grace and truth that Christ was full of. And so, what I am supposed to do with another, especially when there’s a difference, is to not move towards them, minimizing or ignoring the difference; I’m to move towards them in a honest assessment of the difference, acknowledging fully how we’re different. But that’s not the basis of our connecting with one another.
Dr. Darrell Bock
So, the old expression, “agreeing to disagree,” is actually not a bad expression in some ways.
Dr. Gary Barnes
It’s more than that, though. I’m actually, at my cost perhaps, connecting with you. I’m not just allowing you to disagree with me.
Dr. Darrell Bock
In other words – ’cause one of the things that agreeing to disagree can do, it can become a basis for withdrawal.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yes, it could be.
Dr. Gary Barnes
We’re just gonna tolerate each other.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Yes.
Dr. Darrell Bock
And we agree – and we’re not gonna ever talk about this again, and we’re done with it, et cetera. And I’m – at that level, I’m gonna disconnect with you is my point.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Yes.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yes.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Okay. I think that’s the way, oftentimes, that phrase is used.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yes. So, this is going beyond that in that we’re gonna, with our differences, make a connection.
Dr. Michelle Woody
But again, with our – you know, one of the themes we haven’t really talked about – and this is probably another show, not this one – but it’s understanding self.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Right.
Dr. Michelle Woody
You’ve got to understand you well enough so that you can –
Dr. Gary Barnes
Be freed to do that.
Dr. Michelle Woody
– be free to do what we’re talking about here.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Interesting. Yeah. Well, I really do think this is the first of a series of conversations that we’re gonna have, because I think there’s a whole dimension about – which we haven’t even gotten to at all yet – which is what are the things that we do that undermine difficult conversations? There are strategies that we employ. In fact, you can turn on the television and see them applied –
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yes.
Dr. Darrell Bock
– multiple times in one segment.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yes.
Dr. Darrell Bock
And you watch a conversation break down. And then there are things we can do that can advance conversations, that actually are steps towards people, and that are recognized as such.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yeah.
Dr. Darrell Bock
And another thing I like to say about difficult conversations is until you build some sense of trust, until a person understands it, and somehow you connect to them and you care about them, if there is a critique that you’re asking them to understand, they’re not gonna embrace it until they have that sense of connection with you –
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yes.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Exactly.
Dr. Darrell Bock
– and they’re willing to take it in.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Exactly. And one of those verses, James 1:19, “Be quick to” – what? – “listen, slow to speak” –
Dr. Gary Barnes
Slow to speak.
Dr. Michelle Woody
– “and slow to anger.”
Dr. Gary Barnes
Slow to anger.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm. Oh, I think that’s a great verse for this; that’s right.
Dr. Michelle Woody
And we can’t do that if we are so intent on being right, winning, and getting my point across.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yeah. Can I go back to your moving towards rather than against or away?
Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah, sure.
Dr. Gary Barnes
So, if we try to make that a little more clear in what we mean by that, one of the things that I think can help us is, again, this does require good information and good skills. But more importantly, it’s the heart. And am I free to do that?

And if I’m actually moving towards a person, that is an act of love, not a feeling of love. And in that moving towards, I’m actually loving that person by willing the good of that person. When I’m moving against the person, I’m actually acting against what’s good for that person. When I’m moving away from the person, I’m indifferent to that person, and so, I’m moving away from the opportunity of doing something good for this person.

Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah. And the thing I like to say about moving towards someone is the way you move towards someone is not by making them leap into your world.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Right.
Dr. Darrell Bock
If I can say it that way.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yeah.
Dr. Darrell Bock
The way you move toward someone is to move – you approach them from where they are coming from, if I can say it that way.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Yes, yes.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah. ‘Cause they can still be totally disagreeing with your world.
Dr. Darrell Bock
That’s exactly right.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Right.
Dr. Darrell Bock
But if I – and I often think we do this in our own evangelism, that what happens is we make people leap this huge building in a single bound rather than thinking about, “Okay, where is this person coming from into which the gospel will speak?”
Dr. Michelle Woody
Exactly, exactly.
Dr. Darrell Bock
And I love to illustrate this with the way we handled “World Religions” topic, which is the normal way Christians will do it is to say, “Well, this is how this line of beliefs doesn’t line up with the Bible.”
Dr. Gary Barnes
Right.
Dr. Darrell Bock
And it fails. M-kay?
Dr. Michelle Woody
Yeah.
Dr. Darrell Bock
But the way we did our series was to say, “What does this faith believe? Let’s just understand what it stands for. What’s the attraction? Why would someone” – I call it Velcro factor – “why would they still with this?”
Dr. Gary Barnes
With that belief, yeah.
Dr. Darrell Bock
“Why would they – what would drive it.” And then the third question is, “How does the gospel speak into that connection?”
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yes.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Okay? So, what I – in moving towards –
Dr. Gary Barnes
After you understand that.
Dr. Darrell Bock
After you understand that, which takes a little bit of work and a lot of listening.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Yes, patience.
Dr. Darrell Bock
But having done that, what I’ve done is I move towards the person, and I’ve approached the person starting with where they are –
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yes.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Yes.
Dr. Darrell Bock
– and bringing them into a conversation about the gospel as opposed to saying, “Well, unless you – you know, your beliefs line up like this, then we’re in a difficult place.”
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yeah, yeah, right.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Right.
Dr. Gary Barnes
It’s a sequence problem. See?
Dr. Darrell Bock
Mm-hmm.
Dr. Gary Barnes
We tend to go with – if we can just think the same or have the same beliefs, and then we can move towards having the same behaviors, then we can connect with one another.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Right.
Dr. Gary Barnes
See? Whereas with this other approach, the grace and truth approach of the gospel, you can actually connect with one another, and then begin to discuss and see where you go with your beliefs.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Because out of the trust, with those differences you now have a better basis to actually approach the way in which you –
Dr. Michelle Woody
And now are authentic.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Yeah.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Yeah. Well, we have literally – I say this often, and it’s certainly true in this case, we have just scratched the surface on this. But thank you for helping us introduce this topic. This is a series that we are planning on doing on difficult conversations, where we’re gonna talk about different dimensions of it.

As I’ve said, some of the things that we’ll be pursuing will be the types of things that we do that undermine ability to have a good, difficult conversation, the things that we can do that contribute to making it work, those kinds of things.

But I think we’ve laid a good groundwork for people to understand that going into a difficult conversation to win is not gonna help you. Going into a difficult conversation to listen and learn about the person – I think that might be the way to say it –

Dr. Gary Barnes
Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
Dr. Darrell Bock
– to learn about the person gives you a chance.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Mm-hmm.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Yes.
Dr. Darrell Bock
Well, we thank you for being with us and helping us.
Dr. Gary Barnes
Thank you.
Dr. Michelle Woody
Thank you.
Dr. Darrell Bock
And we thank you for being a part of the table and hope you’ll join us again soon.

If you have topics or interests that you want to submit to the table, you can communicate with us at Dallas Seminary, dts.edu, and there’s a page tied to the Hendricks Center, and the Table Podcast that will allow you to give us feedback. We’d love to hear your ideas, and we thank you for being a part of the table today.

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Darrell L. Bock
Dr. Bock is senior research professor of New Testament and executive director for cultural engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has authored or edited more than forty books, including Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels, Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King, Who Is Jesus?: Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith, and Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence.
Gary Barnes
Dr. Barnes is an ordained minister and a licensed psychologist who specializes in marriage and family research, counseling, and training. After graduating from DTS he served as an assistant pastor for seven years. While in the New York area he was a research project coordinator at NYU Medical Center’s Family Studies Clinic and later completed a two-year postdoctoral fellowship through Parkland Hospital (Dallas) and the Child Guidance Clinics of Dallas and Texoma. His great celebrations of life are his wife, four adult kids plus three more by marriage, seven grandkids, and bicycle racing.
Michelle Woody
Dr. Woody is Assistant Professor of Biblical Counseling, DTS-DC. She is a graduate of the DTS Counseling program with several years of ministry and business experience. She served in Bible Study Fellowship for nearly fifteen years in a number of roles including Teaching Leader. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), and ordained minister, and a conference and seminar presenter.
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