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In Making Peace with Your Team Leader, I wrote about the difficulty of resolving conflicts when there is a power differential between the parties, particularly when you have an issue with your manager. I talked about what to do and what not to do. One of the “to do’s” was to ask questions nicely. I just read a book that has a chapter devoted to this very topic, so here’s a short post to share its ideas. The book is When to Speak Up and When to Shut Up: Principles for Conversations You Won’t Regret by Michael Sedler. It’s got a great title because who hasn’t had a time when they wish they’d had the courage to speak up, or that they’d had the wisdom to say nothing? We’ve all had those experiences.

Adam and Eve at the tree
    Used with permission.

When and When Not to Speak Up

Sedler says Adam is a good example of someone who should have spoken up but didn’t. Read Genesis 3:6 carefully. He was right there the whole time and said absolutely nothing but “Yes, dear!”

Most of the book, though, is about the wisdom of silence and listening. However, when in conflict with a person in authority, Sedler says we first have to check our motives. If we want to create disunity, override someone’s opinion with our own, or prove our point, our motives are wrong and we should not speak up.

Check Your Motivation

Improper motivations are evident when someone just doesn’t accept an answer and persists in asking more questions. Complaining and challenging are two other indicators as are debating or disputing, making accusations and taking offense. These are all manifestations of a questioning attitude. The questions aren’t really the issue, there is a deeper problem with the person’s attitude towards those in authority.

Cartoon of a man and megaphone
Used with permission.

A healthier way is to ask questions. It’s a pretty fine distinction, but Sedler means the right way is asking questions with a sincere desire to understand rather than asking questions to confront. Nicodemus asking Jesus about how a man can be born again is a prime example of someone truly engaged in productive questioning.

Two teddy bears 'talking' with each other
Used with permission.

How to Ask Nicely

The author’s advice for asking questions is:

  1. Prepare yourself by asking God to give you words so you’ll be understood. If you are overly emotional or frustrated, get some godly counsel as well.
  2. Book an appointment and ask for the amount of time you think it should take. When everyone has time for the conversation, it will go much better. People can focus on the issue at hand and they don’t have to cut out in the middle to get to another appointment.
  3. Get to the point quickly. Don’t leave the person wondering where the conversation is going.
  4. Let the person know you recognize their authority. You are asking for clarification or background information. Don’t be inflammatory, just ask your questions simply and state your concern.
  5. If you don’t understand the answer or see how it relates to your concerns, ask the person to go over it again or express it in a different way.
  6. Don’t become defensive. Just explain your concern.
  7. Don’t try to justify yourself or your position. One or two pieces of evidence as to why you see the issue differently are sufficient for the other person to understand you.
  8. Thank the person for their time and ask if you can connect again if other questions arise. But don’t come back with the same questions.

My wife read the book too, and she loved it because she says it is so true to life!! Her key points are:

  • Sedler nails how conversations really go.
  • It’s intensely practical and written with great humility, using his own experiences as examples of what not to do.
  • If you’ve had conversations that haven’t gone well and you’re not sure why, he explains it.
  • He has practical tips for how to handle different types of difficult conversations well.
  • It is very positive, easy to read and well written.
  • The author is a Jew who was brought up really Jewish. His testimony of how he became a Christian is told in an appendix and it is very interesting.

“The book has been provided courtesy of Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available now at your favourite bookseller.”

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