The Art of Constructive Conversations

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It was Sunday at 9:05 AM. Sherri showed up in the first grade room after hearing about a situation with a parent from her pastor. Upon talking with the volunteer leader in charge, it was clear that this parent was concerned about his daughter’s food allergy, though not nearly as much as his understanding of last week’s Bible lesson. Apparently, the child’s small group leader made a comment that got misrepresented on the car ride home. This single dad needed to voice what bothered him, but didn’t want to stick around and risk walking in late for the worship service. This quick interchange had a huge relational ripple effect that morning and into the following week.

Effective children’s ministry requires a wide web of relationships. Kids and volunteer leaders are typically at the hub. From there, kidmin leadership also interfaces with pastors, parents, and peer colleagues. A wise kid-influencer recognizes his/her responsibility to navigate these critical relationships well in the congregation and community. At the core, they’re committed to serving children and families in full awareness of relational complexities. This is why they work so hard to master the art of constructive conversations, and you can too.

Bridges and Breakdowns

Consider Sherri’s situation. The relational dynamics are complicated but manageable. Here are some unknowns:

What’s Sherri’s role at church? How long has she been involved? How well does her pastor know her and the children’s ministry? What’s the background story on the volunteers in the scenario? Is this parent new to the church and/or newly separated? What’s at stake in these relationships and how much sits on Sherri’s shoulders?

Putting these questions on the table makes it possible to explore relational bridges and breakdowns. Ideally, Sherri is familiar with the state of each bridge in her web of relationships. Knowing how strong and supportive her individual connections are will impact Sherri’s approach to dealing with breakdowns in community that come her way. By taking God’s Word to heart, it can help her avoid overreacting. Check out these bridge-building, breakdown-solving Proverbs that she keeps in her back pocket.

“There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12:18). 

“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).

“A fool does not delight in understanding, but only in revealing his own mind” (Proverbs 18:2). 

“The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17).

So what is Sherri to do? Rereading a couple verses and taking a few deep breaths won’t get her through this day’s relational rapids. Fortunately, there are fundamentals we can all master over time that will have a long-term positive impact.

Fundamentals to Build Upon

Discerning your way through interpersonal disruptions requires relational agility. Where relational bridges are historically strong, it should be safer to address issues head on. And, where bridges are new or weak, confrontation could likely damage what little is there. However, experience reveals that the exact opposite often happens.

The front-and-center question is: “What kind of interpersonal breakdown is this and what’s the way forward?” The art of constructive conversations gives Sherri—and all of us—wise ways to wade through relational waters. Here’s a basic framework for stepping into potentially hard conversations.

  1. Hold your agenda loosely.

Have you ever entered a conversation thinking you had near perfect perspective and answers? How’d that go? Servant leaders are committed to honoring God and loving others with the character of Christ. It’s hard to stay silent, listen, and understand before diving in. It’s also humbling to check strong emotions at the door. Here’s another Proverb to hold onto instead of starting by standing your ground: “He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him” (Proverbs 18:13). You may have ideas for building the bridge or mending the breakdown, but let the other person share their mind and heart first.

  1. Find out what you both want.

I love the bittersweet story of the two teenagers who both wanted the last orange in the kitchen. Unable to communicate clearly, they finally cut the fruit in half and went their separate ways. As it turns out, one wanted the orange to eat and the other wanted the rind’s zest for baking. They could have benefited more by talking it out, discovering their differing wants, and negotiating a resolution. Seeking to understand through honoring dialogue often leads to innovative problem solving.

  1. Clarify what each of you needs.

In Sherri’s situation, each person desired and needed something different. It’s her job to patiently approach the individuals or bring them together so what’s at the heart of the matter becomes clear. What people want and need are usually different. This is where the art of constructive conversations takes a necessary turn. Identifying the mutually appreciated needs of the parent, child, leaders, and pastor is essential for Sherri to move toward healthy solutions.

  1. Solidify a shared action plan.

Casually grabbing coffee to talk about a common concern isn’t the end game. Ultimately it’s to answer, “What will make things better between us or the community moving forward?” This requires a well-defined plan. It need not be elaborate to be effective. Simply decide on a three-step solution: new ground rules for speaking to one another, an apology with the promise to raise concerns earlier next time, or an agreement to involve a third party could suffice. Whatever happens, make sure both parties own the resolution.

  1. Recommit to the relationship.

This may seem obvious, even unnecessary, but it pays relational dividends in the end. People need to know you care deeply about them. It will mean the world to the child’s small group leader, the dad, the volunteer in the room, and the pastor if Sherri takes time to verbalize the value she places on her relationship with each person. The goal in constructive conversations isn’t figuring out facts, it’s forging true community.

  1. Follow through on your part.

“But he/she didn’t ______ so I didn’t ______.” might be the number one phrase that erodes relational bridges and exacerbates interpersonal breakdowns. We’re responsible for ourselves, not what others do or don’t do. Hold to a firm “yes” and “no” (Matthew 5:37) even if the other people involved don’t hold up their end of the deal. Your character, and the character of Christ, will shine through as you take 100% responsibility for what you commit to in community with God and others.

Relationally Redefine “Done”

Sherri’s case study is ultimately about healing the heart of children’s ministry—in her leadership setting, and in yours and mine. Constructive conversations are an art because “done” is defined differently with people than it is with projects. Our kidmin programs are a strategic part of the body of Christ and need to be relationally healthy. Proverbs 16:24 says, “Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” When we understand how relationships take root, grow, weather, and mend over time, the children’s ministries we lead will build lasting community in its key relationships.

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3 Resources to Take Your Constructive Conversations Further 

Need to Find Your Footing?

Visit VitalSmarts.com for free and for-purchase resources/training. Two excellent books are Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High and Crucial Accountability: Tools for Resolving Violated Expectations, Broken Commitments, and Bad Behavior. Find out more at vitalsmarts.com/resource-center/books.

Is Confrontation Coming Your Way?

Check out How to Have That Difficult Conversation: Gaining the Skills for Honest and Meaningful Communication by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. Learn more at boundariesbooks.com/related-books/how-to-have-that-difficult-conversation-youve-been-avoiding.

Seeking Strategic Alignment?

Dan Lovaglia’s new book, Relational Children’s Ministry: Turning Kid-Influencers into Lifelong Disciple Makers, is a great practical resource. It provides specific steps for constructive conversations with church leadership in Chapter 11: Recalibrate Your Discipleship Target in Children’s Ministry. Go to relationalchildrensministry.com or awana.org/RCM to get a free sample chapter and additional information.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About the Author

Dan Lovaglia | Awana® Director of New Ministries & Parent Engagement As Director of New Ministries and Parent Engagement at Awana, Dan Lovaglia and the team he leads are finding fresh ways to equip kids, families and ministry leaders to know, love and serve Christ. He brings 15 years of discipleship ministry experience to the table and a passion for life-changing teaching, training and team-building. Dan and his wife Kate live in the northwest suburbs of Chicago with their two fantastic middle-school-age sons and dog Wrigley. Follow Dan’s adventures on Twitter and Instagram @DanLovaglia.