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Grace and Truth in Difficult Conversations

How to Have That Difficult Conversation You've Been Avoiding by Henry Cloud and John Townsend 9780310267140,Asian young couple sit and hug together against the sky in outdoor.

A successful confrontation will always involve balancing grace and truth.

Grace is your being on the side of, or “for,” the other person as well as the relationship. Truth is the reality of whatever you need to say about the problem.

This balancing combination is referred to as being neutralized. Being neutralized doesn’t mean being neutral about the problem – not taking a side or expressing an opinion. In fact, the clearer you express your opinion, the better your chances of success.

Instead, being neutralized means that having grace and truth together counters the bad effects of having one of these by itself. In other words, grace alone or truth alone can have a negative effect in a confrontation, but having the two together neutralizes the negatives.

Jesus was the perfect combination of these two elements of growth. Jesus’ approach was superior to that of the law of Moses:

For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. – John 1:17

People need both grace and truth in relationships with God and with each other. Think about a time when someone told you the truth without love. You probably felt attacked, judged, or condemned. No matter how accurate the truth, it hardly mattered, because the hurtful feelings erased the truth in the confrontation.

In good boundary conversations, truth needs grace for the person to safely receive and digest the information.

Now reflect on a time you received grace without any truth.

Grace comforts us and keeps us safe and loved, but it doesn’t provide reality, structure, direction, or correction. You may have come away from that encounter feeling refreshed and encouraged, but without the path or insight to know what to do next. Truth neutralizes that problem and provides the way we need.

Here are some ways to keep both aspects in balance when you are having the talk.

Keep in Mind That the Other Person Needs Both Just as You Do

Remember that even though you might be upset with someone, his ability to take in truth will also require love and grace, just as yours does. Your intent is not to fix, straighten out, or punish. It is to provide enough amounts of truth and grace to reconcile and solve the problem.

Lead with Grace

It is always best to start with grace, as it sets the stage for the other person to be able to tolerate the truth. Tell the person, “Before we get into the topic, I want you to know I really care about you and about us. I want us to be better, and I want us to be on the same team. I hope I can convey that to you even when we talk about the problem.”

Don’t assume that she automatically knows these things. In fact, in a confrontation the other person often needs more reassurance of the grace, because the situation may access her own unloved and condemned parts.

Keep Both Elements Present at the Same Time

Keep grace and truth integrated and woven together in your talk. As much as possible, avoid the tendency to have a “grace” part and then a “truth” part of the talk; otherwise, it could seem like two different, and even inconsistent, talks. When you are confronting, sprinkle in your care. When you are caring, sprinkle in the truth.

For example, you might say, “While I want us to be close again, this problem is getting in the way, and I need to resolve it between us. I can’t dance around it or ignore it. But it’s hard, because I don’t want this talk to distance us even more.”

Be Aware of Your Imbalances

None of us are totally in the middle here. Some of us lean toward grace and are too soft on the truth. Others may be very clear about an issue and can come across harsh and critical. Work on developing whichever part of grace and truth you are weak on, so that you can stay neutralized in the boundary conversation.

When in Doubt, Go for Grace

If you are unsure at a given point in the conversation, lean toward grace. The damage done by a lack of grace is more severe than the converse. With grace alone, you stand a chance of being able to have another conversation later. With truth alone, the judgment could possibly rupture the safety of the relationship so much that things fall apart.

For example, if the person resists your point, you may want to press it to see if there is another way he can receive it. However, if he becomes increasingly unresponsive, defensive, or angry, this is probably not the time to keep pressing home with truth. Back off, try to reestablish the connection with grace, and try again later. In our parenting book, Raising Great Kids, we refer to those times in which you are totally lost in a conflict with a kid. At those times, drop back to the relationship and get reattached. Otherwise, nothing good happens.

In your effort to stay neutralized, keep grace and truth friends with each other, not adversaries. Look to God and His example of keeping the two aspects of life together:

Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other. – Psalm 85:10

Excerpted with permission from How to Have That Difficult Conversation You’ve Been Avoiding by Henry Cloud and John Townsend, copyright Zondervan, 2005.

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Your Turn

If you are going to have relationships, there is no way to avoid difficult conversations. But, most of us have a lot to learn about balancing grace and truth in difficult conversations. What do you need to work on more — grace or truth? Join the conversation on our blog! We’d love to hear from you about becoming more like Jesus in the way that we love and confront others!