How to Have Difficult Conversations

Hope Johnson

Rev. Dr. Hope Johnson

There are times when every congregation faces the need to engage in difficult conversations. These are some of the most heartbreaking and destructive events that congregations face. Having open conversation and discussion is healthy. Yet, that is often when unhealthy patterns of behavior come to life.

Conversations are held, and often whispered, in parking lots, behind closed doors both inside and outside the congregation. Typically, conversation becomes unhealthy when conducted behind the backs of those who are in the “middle of the muck.” Though there current issues are presented, these conversations actually express long-standing patterns demonstrating how conflict is dealt with in one congregation or another.

Your Regional Congregational Life staff is available to support your congregations in having healthy conversations about difficult subjects. It is always best to figure out how to have these conversations in before this expertise is needed. Working on long-term conflict transformation and justice-making strategies and efforts are important. Being skilled as a congregation in having difficult conversations is its own separate category. Every now and then something blows up—seemingly without warning—and the triage must begin.

We are here to support you, no matter how short the notice. We will listen. We will work with you to identify what the core issues are. We will co-create ways to have the difficult, yet fruitful conversations that need to be had. We will support your congregation in trying to bring people together to do this hard work. The initial goal is often simply getting people to sit down quietly so that they can listen to each other with respect. We try to develop a shared communication time line and then invite you to put on new lenses so that there can be a shared understanding of why there is need for a healthy conversation. The goal is often to build and to re-build trust within the community.

We provide staff, and specialists who are skilled in one aspect of conflict transformation or another in these instances.

Though it really is best to reach out way before the need arises, please don’t hesitate to reach out as soon as you recognize the urgency of your congregational situation.

Yours, HOPE

P.S. Our beloved Hope Johnson passed away in November 2020. As she suggested above, please get in touch with your primary contact to discuss options for your congregational conflict. Earlier is always better to check in!

The national conflict engagement program started by and named for Hope, HOPE For Us Conflict Engagement Team, is expected to be off the ground in the summer of 2022. Your primary contact can direct you to that program when appropriate.


About the Author

Hope Johnson

Hope Johnson was a beloved elder in Unitarian Universalism. She served as the Congregational Life Consultant for the UUA's Central East Region and the Southern Region. She brought specialties in conflict resolution and multicultural congregational development.

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