Pressure Points, Session 4: Can We Talk?

 by Jennifer McCaman

Stop avoiding conflict and deal with the tough stuff

canwetalkI’m an accomplished sweeper. I’m not talking about the bristled instrument that swishes away dust bunnies. I’m referring to brushing problems out of the way. Unfortunately, I’m collecting a pretty big mess under the rug.

Conflict is hard. But it’s also unavoidable. If we want to be part of any relationship that goes beyond niceties to the real stuff, we have to deal.

For most of us, though, that does not come necessarily easily. We have been taught that nice Christian people smile and say polite things. But Dr. John Townsend, psychologist and coauthor of How to Have That Difficult Conversation You’ve Been Avoiding, suggests we change our perspective. Conflict can be healthy, he says, because it “helps people solve problems that need to be addressed so the relationship can move forward. … Whenever two people can perform the skill of ‘speaking the truth in love,’ good things can happen between them.”

So we’ve decided to be up front. We’re giving you these everyday situations to help you stop sweeping and start dealing with the dirt in your relationships.


Kristen Callahan, a children’s ministry assistant, asked coworkers to help with a huge project. Kate (not her real name) flat out refused, stating it wasn’t her job. Kristen was baffled. “For several months afterward, I was bitter toward Kate even though she might not have known,” she admits.

Here’s the deal: Sometimes the office gets a little chilly. But it’s important to get along with coworkers because you spend half your waking hours with them. Sweeping away the issue only breeds resentment.

To start with: Townsend says not to start with a specific topic, such as productivity or attitude. He suggests opening like this: “I value what you bring to our team. I don’t know a way to approach you with problems I see, though. How can I do that without putting you on the defensive?”

Things to think about when talking about tough stuff:

  • Be direct, but don’t make it personal.
  • Make the other person part of the solution. According to Townsend, asking for input helps you sidestep potential explosions and reinforces that you’re part of the same team.
  • Don’t be a coward. Talk in person, not through an e-mail where meanings can be easily misinterpreted. And never send a mass e-mail to address an individual problem.
  • Keep emotions in check. Don’t burst into tears just because someone has a different opinion.
  • Keep it one-on-one. The gossip mill only escalates conflict.

Ending on a good note: If the two of you reach a solution, great. Repeat it for clarity, making sure you’re on the same page; and get back to work. If you still clash, you may need to respectfully agree to disagree.

 “In the middle of a heated discussion, it’s not OK to say exactly what you feel and think, justifying it because it’s true.”

— Dr. John Townsend, psychologist


Mark and Jonathan are close friends who share an apartment. But like Felix and Oscar from “The Odd Couple,” if a household chore gets done — from vacuuming to taking out the trash — Jonathan does it. And he’s getting tired of it.

Here’s the deal: Sometimes roommates are loads of fun. Other times, they make you seriously consider the benefits of life as a hermit. It’s one thing to ignore problems to keep the peace, but too much pretending can bring on roommate rage.

To start with: Your roommate is your friend, so just calmly tell him you want to talk about something important (that means you’ll have to cool down first).

Things to think about when talking about tough stuff:

  • “Agree to some basic ground rules,” Townsend says. “You’ll both stick to the issue and not get sidetracked before it’s resolved.” That means dealing with one issue at a time.
  • Think about how you’d want a friend to approach you.
  • Compromise. Jonathan might agree to take out the trash if Mark vacuums every other week.
  • Scrap the scorecard. Don’t point out that you’ve taken the last 23 bags of trash to the dumpster — and don’t insult your roommate’s slimy living habits.

Ending on a good note: The problem isn’t the person; it’s the action. Remember: This is the person you share a home with, so avoid under-your-breath comments (“It’s about time”) and show appreciation when your roomie makes an effort (“Thanks for washing the dishes, dude.”)


Amanda and Kyle have been dating for a few months, and the newness is wearing off. She wants his undivided attention on weekends, but he wants to hang out with his compadres too. Arguments are popping up regularly these days.

Here’s the deal: Townsend suggests that conflict celebrates the differences between two people. “You can’t feel a lot of passion for someone who is smothering you and who thinks and feels exactly what you do.” But when passion leads to screaming and throwing things, there’s a problem.

To start with: Nonverbal language is a huge part of communication. Give each other permission, Townsend suggests, to “give the other feedback on the kind of nonverbal things they do, such as a sarcastic tone, stiff posture, or rolling the eyes. Then take responsibility for it and change it.”

Things to think about when talking about tough stuff:

  • “In the middle of a heated discussion, it’s not OK to say exactly what you feel and think, justifying it because it’s true,” Townsend says. “Ask yourself, ‘Is what I want to say going to get me the outcome I want here?’”
  • If the argument escalates, “it’s helpful for you to be able to call a foul and agree to continue later,” Townsend continues.
  • Ask questions. Try to see the issue from the other perspective; then clarify to make sure you really understand each other.
  • Steer clear of absolutes (like always or never).

Ending on a good note: Know when a conversation is over. There is no need to transform a simple dispute into a two-hour drama. “When you’ve reached some reasonable solutions, don’t jump to another topic and start nagging about that,” Townsend says. Your work is done for the day. Now, go watch a movie (preferably a funny one).

Despite their promise and now-famous marketing campaign, Coca-Cola has yet to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. And who wants that anyway? If we all thought alike, we’d avoid the clash, but life would be pretty boring. So stop sweeping and start speaking the truth in love.


We know, conflict really isn’t simple, and life rarely works out like a bulleted list. So what do you do when a confrontation conversation flat-out bombs? Try this bulleted list instead:

  • Walk away. Better to forfeit the last word than say something you’ll regret.
  • Pay attention to the specific words or actions that set you off and watch for them next time.
  • Learn to forgive. We know it’s not easy, but resentment hurts more over time.
  • Try again. Don’t let an ugly fight keep you from dealing with the original issue. But if repeated efforts don’t work, then move on.
  • If the other person just won’t have a rational discussion, consider finding a trusted someone to mediate.

Fresh out of college, Jennifer McCaman is finding her way in the freelance writing world and learning to say what she really means.



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