By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

In the Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus Encounter, we show a short video re-enactment of an interaction between Jesus and the mother of James and John in the Gospel of Matthew. She wants Jesus to give them favored status in his kingdom (Matt 20:21).

Obviously, it’s a difficult conversation. But Jesus doesn’t deflect the request. He responds to it, telling her and her sons that the favor they seek “is not mine to give” (Matt 20:23).

But that’s not the end of it. Somehow, the other 10 apostles hear about the conversation. Although Jesus has denied the request of James, John and their mother, the other apostles are “indignant at the two brothers” (Matt 20:24).

What is Jesus to do?

Speaking personally, I might very well have been inclined to let the matter pass, especially in my early days in a leadership position, hoping the apostles’ ire would gradually dissipate and disappear. Jesus knows better. He knows that these kinds of issues in the ranks are much more inclined to fester and get worse than to just go away.

So he calls the apostles together and uses their indignation as a teaching opportunity. He tells them:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matt 20:25-28).

Jesus knew how to have difficult conversations – and how to use them as teaching moments to make things better than they were before. It’s a talent we all should foster.

“When you manage people, sooner or later you are in a position where you need to have a conversation that you’d just rather not have,” says Joel Garfinkle, author of nine books, including Difficult Conversations: Practical Tactics for Crucial Communication.  

A big part of the problem is that it’s so easy to make excuses to put off such a conversation. We can rationalize doing nothing in a dozen different ways. Seldom do any of them yield any good outcomes. Unfortunately, if we have any sort of leadership role, we eventually have to have these conversions.

Garfinkle has three suggestions for getting the best out of these moments:

Step 1: Just do it. And do it as soon as possible, assuming you are in control of your emotions.

Step 2: Set a time, place, duration and clear agenda. Apart from the built-in advantages of doing each of these things, they are also an indication that you are capable of thinking clearly and acting with control.

Step 3: Prepare to listen. No matter how you perceive things, if you want a good outcome you have to understand where the other person is coming from, so you have to begin with an open-ended question – and you have to really listen to the answer.


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