There’s an Elephant in the Room How to Have Difficult Conversations in Church

Difficult conversations are... well, difficult. And then church adds a whole other layer of complexity. What does our Unitarian Universalist theology tell us about conflict and difficult conversations?

You will learn this, along with tools to help name the elephant in the room and move forward in love. The workshop uses multimedia, story telling, and breakout rooms. You will leave with a list of going-deeper-resources.

Ingredients of a Difficult Conversation

  • Differing Perceptions
  • Competing values, priorities,
  • expectations
  • Assumptions about intent
  • Feelings, vulnerability
  • Threatened identity
  • Blame - Shame


  • Being present non-anxiously. Check your triggers. What buttons of yours are being pushed and what is that really about? If you are afraid or angry, discern what values are at risk for you. Know what you are feeling.

  • Leading with curiosity and respect

  • Remembering you have a covenant with this person

  • Embrace mutual purpose. Getting clear on the purpose of having the conversation. Check yourself for hidden agendas and expectations.

  • Listening: “seek first to understand and then to be understood”

  • Adopting the “Yes, and…” stance

  • Getting clear on your assumptions about the other person’s intentions? Impact does not necessarily equal impact.

  • Double checking – is what you need to say true, helpful, necessary and/or kind?

  • Choosing to have the conversation or not. Is the conversation necessary to have? What will likely happen if you ignore the issue?

Radical, Counter-Cultural Shifts

Radical, Counter-Cultural Shifts
From To
Safety Courage
Certitude Holy Curiosity
Being right Being in right relationship
Contract Thinking Covenant Practicing
Punitive Restorative

Beginning the Conversation

Empty yourself from agendas and outcomes. Prepare to be transformed.

“I need your help with what just happened. Do you have a few minutes to talk?”

“I’d like to talk about __________ with you, but first I’d like to get your point of view."

“I would like to understand where you are coming from on…”

“Can you say a little more about how you see things about…?”

“I think we have different perceptions/ opinions about _____________. I’d like to hear your thinking on this."

“I’d like to see if we might reach a better understanding about____________. I really want to hear your feelings about this and share my perspective as well.”


  • Stay focused on the purpose of the conversation.
  • Describe how you believe you got to where you are in the situation, including how you contributed to the problem. Take responsibility for your part. Apologize if you need to. Ask how you can make things better if you are responsible. Do what is agreed upon.
  • Talk about a future and what can happen differently, so you don’t end up in the same place. What can you do differently? Ask the other person(s) what suggestions they might have to resolve the problem.
  • Do not take things personally. Help the other person come back to the center. Take time outs as needed. It takes 20 minutes at least to complete a stress cycle. Take the time the conversation needs.
  • Check your expectations and assumptions.
  • Ask for help if that is what you need in order to have the conversation. Some communities have people dedicated to helping members have difficult conversations. These trusted partners can either meet with you before the conversation to help you prepare and practice or can be present to help hold the container for the conversation. Please note that if you are asking someone to join into the conversation that is between you and another everyone needs to be in agreement.
  • Ask for what you need and set good boundaries. No one needs to put up with behavior that is harming them.
  • Give things the time that is needed. All issues cannot be fixed with one effort. How long has this issue taken to form? Do not rush.
  • Remember that somethings will not be fixed. Not every conversation will be “resolved.” Not ever conflict will be “managed.”

About the Authors

Connie Goodbread

Connie Goodbread is serving Unitarian Universalism as HOPE for Us Conflict Engagement Team Director. Connie served as Co-Lead of UUA Southern Region for three years.

Tandi Rogers

Rev. Tandi Rogers is a multi-vocational minister: a Learning, Innovation, and Growth Strategist; affiliate faculty at Meadville Lombard Theological School; and a Spiritual Director in private practice. Tandi served the UUA for 20 years in many roles (2002-2022.

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