difficult conversations

What to Do About Perpetual Lateness

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Most groups have at least one or two members who consistently show up late. I’m not talking about the person who unexpectedly runs into a five-car pile-up on the way to group or who gets called into an emergency meeting at work as she's about to head home. I'm not talking about the parent whose babysitter cancels at the last minute, forcing him to scramble to find a backup. I'm talking about the folks who are perpetually late for no good reason at all. What do you do about group members who are chronically late?

A lot of times, the chronically late are unaware that their lateness affects the group dynamic. You have the privilege—yes, it's a privilege—of letting chronically late group members know how their actions are potentially perceived by others. It probably won't be an easy conversation, but it may help them grow by making them aware of a personal blind spot.

Chronic lateness can communicate that a person:

  • Thinks social time is a waste of time
  • Isn't interested in what’s going on in others' lives
  • Believes his or her time is more valuable than others'
  • Is disorganized
  • Doesn't think group is important
  • Has too little margin in his or her schedule because of an inability to set healthy boundaries

None of those things may be true, but it's how other group members probably feel. And if they feel that way, it will affect the group dynamic. It will make it difficult for you to create environments where people can grow closer to one another as they follow Jesus.

So, have an offline conversation with the group member who is always late. Approach the conversation prayerfully. It's probably a good idea not to initiate the talk until you've gotten to the place where you can put aside most of your own annoyance and speak with the other person's best interests at heart.

Let your group member know that you've noticed a pattern and don't want his or her behavior to be misinterpreted by others in the group. Reinforce why it's important to arrive on time. Listen to what the group member has to say—maybe there's a short-term or long-term event unfolding in his or her life that requires adjusting the group's schedule (with everyone else's buy-in) or setting some new expectations for the other group members.

Unfortunately, there isn't a one-size-fits-all conversation for chronically late group members. Just remember that your goal is to understand the group member's perspective and extend grace, but also to set the kind of expectations that maintain a healthy group dynamic and benefit every member of the group.

More Resources for Tough Conversations

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Leading people means you're going to have to have tough conversations from time to time. It's just part of the deal. Knowing that doesn't make it any easier, but it is what it is . . . and what it is is one of the most difficult aspects of leading.

A little over a year ago, Sue Bates provided some great practical advice on navigating uncomfortable conversations, but I thought it was probably time to revisit the topic. So, I poked around the web and found a trio of great articles:

What additional advice would you give a leader faced with having to initiate a tough conversation with a group member?

Setting Group Boundaries, Part Two

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We all agree that setting boundaries for group members is necessary for maintaining group health. But how do we approach a group member that refuses to live within those boundaries? How do we manage the tension between extending needy members grace and delivering truth? Here are some ideas to help you manage this tension:

Be compassionate. Start with compassion. At first, it may be difficult to discern real need from "real needy." If you enter into the fray with compassion, your heart will be ready to respond appropriately.

Be aware. Watch how the other members of the group respond to a potentially needy member. Look for signs that your other group members are growing tired or detached from the group. Look for rolling eyes, sidebar conversations, or even reduced attendance.

Be prepared. Needy group members tend to dominate group discussion. Look for an opening to draw the conversation from the needy member and back to the group. You can do this by simply saying to another group member, "What do you think about that?" Always keep your ears open for a pause where you have the opportunity to bring the group back on task.

Be assertive. You'll probably have to address the needy member. Because of low self-awareness, needy members rarely resolves issues on their own. Be willing and prepared to address the issue when the time is right.

Be quick. Address the issue as quickly as possible. The longer it continues, the harder it is to rein in and the more potential for damaging relationships inside the group increases. Waiting also increases the likelihood that someone else in the group will address the needy member in a less than ideal way.

Be discreet. Addressing needy people in a public forum isn't best. It drives them away and potentially causes more damage. It's best to address the issue outside of the regular group meeting. If it's helpful, you can bring your apprentice along for the confrontation. This lets the needy member know that it's not just one person's opinion.

Be humble. You want to balance speaking truth with a humble spirit. People tend to discount what they hear from someone they consider self-righteous or arrogant.

Be accepting. Communicate acceptance. It's easier to accept a difficult truth when you're confident that they accept you as a person. If you're not, then what they say comes across as rejection.

Be sound. Focus on adding truth rather than pointing out errors. People don't abandon what they think or believe just because someone presents a good argument.

Be thorough. One conversation probably won't resolve all issues. Be ready to have follow-up conversations. Encourage needy members to go down a road of self-discovery. Let them know you're on their side and want to help them grow.

Be a leader. Lead needy members to self-discovery. Preaching to them puts them in a position to defend their beliefs or behaviors. Asking good questions positions them to discover truth on their own.

Not every situation will be resolved in a desirable way. But if you use some of these ideas, they'll give your group a greater chance of success. In the end, God is responsible for the outcome. We're responsible for our attitude and actions when helping lead our groups.

Setting Group Boundaries, Part One

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Most of us have been in a group or two with one group member who dominates the group experience. Maybe there's been someone who tried to dominate every group you've been in. It's important for the health of our groups and for our growth as leaders that we learn how to set boundaries for dominant group members. If one member of the group dominates the group experience, the real issues of growth and care for other members may never be addressed. Individuals who don't grow and aren't cared for will carry that experience into their future groups. They may even decide that community isn't worth the effort. And if leaders don't set boundaries, dominant group members will carry that pattern of behavior into their future groups as well.

We can't “kick the can down the road” or “run out the clock.” The opportunity to create and sustain a healthy group is now. But first we have to set boundaries.

This is never easy. But the more you do it, the better you get at it. In the long run, it's easier to set boundaries at the outset of the group than to have to rein someone in six months into the life of the group. How do you do this?

First, clearly establish from the beginning that small group is not a support group. While care is part of the experience, the small group isn't equipped or designed to be a recovery group or a place for counseling sessions.

Second, address the distinction between caregiving and caretaking. God calls us to provide care in times of need, but we're not caretakers for individuals in our groups.

Third, establish at the outset that spiritual growth is a goal for the group. That means group members are willing to listen and apply insights and actions suggested by the group.

Finally, group is a place for accountability. Community allows God to restore and reconcile us to him through our relationships with others. Isaiah 61 says, "He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness the prisoners." What greater charge can leaders have? When we proclaim biblical truths, those truths become the key to breaking through the barriers that hold a needy person hostage. Those truths shine a light where darkness has thrived for years. As leaders, we have the opportunity, challenge, privilege, and responsibility to deliver truth.

Setting boundaries is essential in helping lead groups well. But there are times when group members refuse to live within the established group boundaries. Part Two of this post explores what to do in that kind of situation.

Unequally Yoked

Unequally Yoked

You’re sitting across from your friend who’s dating a non-believer.  You want to blurt out that Scripture that says, "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers" and hope that’s enough to convince her to stop dating the person. Or maybe you know that’s what you should say...

Uncomfortable Conversations

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You’re listening to your friend describe the person he or she is dating and the thought bubble in your head is screaming, “You shouldn't be dating this person!” But you leave your friend’s company, having said nothing . . . and then spend the next few weeks having imaginary conversations about what you should have said. Or worse, you have conversations with other people instead of with your friend. How do you approach uncomfortable conversations? There isn’t a step-by-step guide, is there? But there are some things you can keep in mind before, during, and after.

Before the conversation . . .

Pray. Pray. Pray. Smother this situation in prayer—for wisdom, for humility, for timing, for the fullness of grace and truth. When you think you've prayed enough, pray a little more.

Identify your friend’s spiritual location. Where is he or she spiritually?  Would your friend say that he or she is a follower of Christ?  It’s absurd to expect someone who isn't living in the Kingdom to live by Kingdom values. They didn’t sign up for that (yet).

Understand the scripture “unequally yoked.” Read 2 Corinthians 6:14. This is the biblical go-to in challenging a believer who is dating a non-believer. Is this the situation with your friend or are you just not a fan of the person he or she is dating?

Examine your own heart. Ask yourself, “Do I want to be right more than I want God’s best for my friend?  Have I put in the time to build relational equity so my friend knows I'm on his or her side?  Is my heart broken for my friend or am I just angry?

During the conversation . . .

Think timing. Relationships aren't efficient. Adjust your expectation that you can waltz in, say a few lines, drop the mic, and walk out.  You might have the right stance, but is this the right time?  Also, big issues usually require more than one conversation.

Present God’s best. What does God want for us in terms of our dating relationships?  Focus on what Scripture says about dating wisely.  Avoid your own commentary or Christian cultural “deal-breakers” about how dating should look.

Ask questions. Ask questions. Ask questions. Asking questions allows you to lead your friend to the answers, rather than telling him or her the answer.  It helps identify the tension in being unequally yoked.  Telling someone what to do or think is condescending and patronizing. Questions to ask your friend to help identify the tension:

  • As you’ve talked about your faith with your significant other, what have you heard that’s encouraged you?
  • Have you identified your "non-negotiables"? These are values you won't compromise in a dating relationship.
  • Are there areas you’d like to see him or her grow in relationship with Christ?  Could you marry your significant other if nothing changed?
  •  What would you tell someone in your position?
  • If the most important thing in your life is something you can't share with your significant other, how will you build intimacy?

After the conversation . . .

Encourage courage. Most single people don't date non-believers because they “don’t know better.”  It’s not a lack of knowledge, but a lack of courage.  Pray and encourage your friend to have the courage to be obedient to God’s best for his or her life.

Walk with her or him. Regardless of what your friend decides, walk alongside her or him.  You can represent God’s truth even when you don’t approve of your friend's behavior. God did the same for you, didn’t he?

Did I mention this won’t be easy? I'll be back next week to delve into this topic a little more deeply. In the meantime, how have you navigated uncomfortable conversations?