What will you do this upcoming October 23? I ask only because it’s a holiday most people don’t know about, but many would celebrate it if they did.
October 23 is National Slap Your Irritating Co-worker Day.
Hmm. Perhaps a little smacking could be a way to stop that arrogant co-worker who interrupts you all the time, the new-hire who doesn’t stop talking, the cubicle-neighbor who speaks only on speakerphone, and the client that makes inappropriate jokes. This holiday could be your chance to make your boss pay for yelling at you and scaring you into tears. It could even make your husband do what you’ve asked a thousand times: “Stop leaving clothes all over the floor!” Who knows?
It is tempting.
But you’re a Christian and you know better.
You know that’s not what the Lord wants. You know what He wants is for you to “be peaceable with all men” (Romans 12:18) and to “do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)
And that’s why this book is for you.
In this book you’ll learn practical techniques that will allow you to fix what’s not working for you in a healthy, effective, and biblical manner. This book will equip you with the tools you need to kill the anxiety, conquer your fears, and courageously speak your mind.
I must warn you, though, that you probably won’t learn anything you haven’t already read in the Bible. That’s because to learn how to deal effectively with disagreements, set boundaries, and ask for what you want with God by your side, you don’t need to seek farther than The Scriptures—“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
What will be new to you, though, is how I, the author, have illustrated biblical principles using the real-life stories of some of the thousands of women I’ve helped over the years to develop their communication and conflict resolution skills. I’ve also compiled cutting-edge scientific research, processed all this knowledge, and organized it into easily digestible bits you can consume at your own pace.
This book is a step-by-step guide that will make you feel more confident and prepared next time you need to have a challenging talk with someone. I promise you, if you apply the teachings of the Bible and practice the advice in this book, you’ll come out ahead whenever you face difficult conversations.
Men and Women Are Equal—Not
We all are children of God, created in his image. But He also created men and women with differences. “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created.” (Genesis 5:1-2)
As spiritual beings standing before The Lord, men and women are absolutely equal, and He loves us the same. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3: 28)
However, God gave men and women as physical beings different gifts to serve Him. And as social beings, men and women are presented with different challenges.
When it comes to dealing with disagreements and setting boundaries, those differences matter.
To live up to their divinely-designated role as nurturers (who must provide love, care, support, encouragement, and protection to others), women tend to make fewer requests for themselves than men. Women tend to leave their own needs for last. (You know this is true.)
The Bible teaches women:
· to be submissive (“Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” (Colossians 3:18))
· to avoid questioning authority (“The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says.” (1 Corinthians 14:34))
· to remain quiet and avoid “correcting” others (“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” (Timothy 2:12)
These verses reflect the patriarchal Jewish culture of the first century that denied women the opportunities men had. (The study of Scripture was essential for men, but women were not allowed to learn from the sacred texts.) Nonetheless, Jesus never wanted any of God’s children to suffer in silence. Jesus gave women extraordinary treatment, defying the social norms of his time in many ways: he spoke to women in public; he refused to see women as unclean or deserving of harsher punishments; he recognized the dignity of women; he taught women about Scripture; and he even accepted women as disciples. Jesus conferred women a standing like men’s when he called them “daughters of Abraham.” (Luke 13:16)
Still, women struggle to find the right balance between remaining silent or speaking up.
Many women avoid facing conflict head-on because they fear hurting others or being disliked. Women intuitively know that if they’re seen as “confrontational” or “demanding,” people will not like them: “Better to live in a desert than with a quarrelsome and nagging wife.” (Proverbs 21:19)
And that’s why women must learn to hold difficult conversations the right way: to be true to their faith and to themselves, while reducing the risk of hurting others and being disliked.
Wanting to be liked is not a shallow pursuit. Being liked matters because the better liked a woman is, the more respect, recognition, and better health she’ll enjoy. She will be more successful, and—very importantly—she will have a social support system to help her through tough times.
Equally important, women who are well-liked bring out the best in others. Isn’t it part of what Christian living is all about?
Women Need to Be Assertive—As Women
Jesus did not want women to be passive—he encouraged them to “be strong and of good courage.” (Deuteronomy 31:6)
But women need to learn how to be assertive as women.
Wait. Isn’t assertiveness the same for men and for women?
No. Definitely NO.
That’s because of societal double standards that cause people to judge men and women differently: there’s ample evidence that while assertive men are admired, people react negatively to assertive women.
Consider these two examples.
· Research has shown that men are able to express assertive behavior without being perceived as less likable, but the same is not true for women.
· Attempting to negotiate can make anyone seem less pleasant, but it’s only women who subsequently suffer a penalty: people are less inclined to work with them as co-workers, subordinates, or bosses.
Even intuitively, women know that the strategies to confront others or set boundaries that work for men don’t work for women.
I know it too.
Look, my husband for instance. John is a devoted Christian. He’s a Gideon (the men who buy Bibles to place them in hotel rooms and to gift them to those in need of love and consolation), he does jail ministry, he serves as board member for a maternity care shelter for young girls who choose life, and he’s frequently a guest speaker at churches. (And he still has time to make killer spaghetti.) I love him to death, but sometimes I’m a bit jealous because I recognize that as a man he gets away with things that. if I did. would cause people to question my understanding of my God-given role as a woman.
Because most women recognize that behaving assertively like men will come back and bite them, they make fewer requests for themselves and therefore leave wants and needs unspoken. These unspoken emotions can have devastating consequences that range from internalized anger and depression to financial penalties and relational frustration.
I’ve heard many women express loud and clear that they know the problem, but are “not quite sure” about the solution.
“It is what it is,” many women tell me, shrugging. “It’s better not to say anything.” And I wonder if they’re aware that the silent frustration is taking a toll on their wellbeing. Consider for instance that the vast majority of women who have been sexually harassed at work—75 percent, according to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission study— never reported it out of fear of retaliation or not being believed.
And, when a woman finally decides to get help, she faces yet another obstacle: most of the advice available out there is implicitly intended for men and therefore will likely backfire when followed by a woman.
Advice Intended for Men Carries Backslash for Women
A recent study that analyzed the self-help book market, jokingly states that, “Not only don’t men want to ask for directions when they get lost, market research suggests that they don’t read self-help books, either.” But get this: men are the ones writing the majority of the self-help books that women read. Two thirds, actually—and that’s no joke.
That might be one of the reasons why all the other conflict-management and boundary-setting books out there, written by men (or by predominantly male teams) and implicitly (and unconsciously) for men short-change women in two crucial ways:
· They fail to acknowledge and address the challenges that women face, but men don’t. (And I’m not talking about having to turn a banana sideways when eating it in public.)
· They neglect to explain that many of the strategies they recommend—when followed by a woman—will carry backlash.
The Bible warns women about behaving the way men do: “A woman shall not wear a man's garment, nor shall a man put on a woman's cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 22:5)
Social researchers call this “gender stereotype violation”: when a person does not conform to stereotyped roles, meaning he or she doesn’t behave like people of their gender are expected to behave, that individual is penalized through social rejection. Women who act like men are disliked, and this harms a woman’s career in ways she may not even be aware of, it negatively impacts her work relationships, access to social networks, day-to-day interactions, and ultimately her opportunities for advancement.
For all these reasons, ignoring the existence of double standards makes books that are not specifically written by and for women not only ineffective, but risky.
This Book Is Written Specifically for Christian Women
Double-standards call for advice tailored for women.
Consider these examples:
· Research shows highly assertive women are judged more harshly and evaluated as less popular and less psychologically well-adjusted than passive-dependent women.
· Female salary negotiation research shows that women, more often than men, need to legitimize their requests during a negotiation.
· Stereotypes and unconscious bias cast women as too emotional.
There is scientific evidence that if a woman expresses an emotion such as anger, fear, sadness, or disgust, people think it’s because she’s emotional, whereas if a man displays the same level and type of emotion people think it’s because “he’s having a bad day.” (I know men who seem to “be having a bad day” every day, don’t you?)
· An ample body of research shows women tend to be perceived as either too soft or too hard, but never “just right.” (Like cheap hotel mattresses.)
In contrast with other books, the one you’re reading is based primarily on biblical principles, and secondarily on rigorous scientific research with large male and female populations.
This book is written in a practical way for Sarah, and Sofia, and Ranita, and Mandeep—for every woman who needs to set boundaries so that
· her roommate won’t have her lesbian lover sleep over in their shared dorm, or
· she can confront the aggressive co-worker who steals her ideas, or
· she can stop her supervisor from bullying or sexually harassing her, or
· she can confront her significant other if she suspects he’s cheating.
I wrote this book for these women because I empathize with what they’re going through.
Nice to Meet You
Allow me to introduce myself with a bit more detail, so you’ll understand better why I’ve felt in my own skin the challenges you’re experiencing that lead you to pick this book, and how that made me realize I had to write it. I had to share what has worked for me, for my daughter, and for the innumerable women I’ve trained.
You see, I’ve paid a high price (personally and professionally) for being either too passive (and letting my fears stop me from confronting others) or too aggressive (thinking I was just being assertive).
About 12 years ago, I spent a three-month vacation in an all-inclusive exotic place I never thought I’d ever visit, where I met people I thought I’d never meet, and where I did things I thought I’d never do: a battered women’s shelter in Texas.
Before ending up in the shelter, I had been someone who avoided “difficult conversations” at all costs. It was hard for me to say no, even though I’ve never considered myself a people-pleaser. I usually avoided confronting others because I wanted to be liked, I didn’t want to hurt their feelings, or I was afraid of their reaction.
A few times I mustered the guts to start speaking up, but I chickened out at the last minute, or just quit after the other person turned the tables on me, and I didn’t know what to do.
With my abusive ex-husband, I either ended up being the one on trial rather than the one who had been offended, or I ended up crying, yelling, and leaving the discussion without a solution. I didn’t realize back then that, gradually, my inability to demand the respect I deserved was killing something inside of me.
At some point, I realized I needed to switch gears. I thought I had learned my lesson—but the truth is that I ended up swerving too much—like when you’re driving on ice, slide, panic, and really don’t know the right way to react. It all happens so fast that “self-preservation” takes over. In my case, I swerved so hard I went from being a doormat all the way to being the kind of “assertive” woman whom others tend to call “a bitch.” (Oops, sorry.)
Here’s how that happened. After a few months in the shelter, applying for jobs every day, I was thrilled when an opportunity came up for a new job in another state. (I was let go from my previous job when I checked in the shelter, and I needed to move for safety reasons.) I was a size zero, and my self-esteem was even smaller than my body (I wouldn’t recommend “the shelter diet,” though), but I still managed to nail the 16 interviews for that job.
Afterwards, my soon-to-be boss walked me to the door, and when I asked him what my chances were, he replied, “I’m not sure, because as a woman, I don’t know if you’ll be able to handle a group of 60 type-A personality males every month.” (I was not applying for a zookeeper job—just as a sales trainer to financial advisors, most of whom are male.)
It is unfair but true: gender-biased stereotyping sabotages women in the workplace.
But guess what.
I got the job. (Happy dance.)
Just between you and me, I wished it had been October 23 so I could celebrate that special holiday with my new boss (wink).
Anyway, this is when I decided to switch gears—I decided to prove to my boss I was not a submissive woman. (I’d still bring him coffee, though. Kidding!)
“To succeed in the world of men,” I told myself, “I’ll just behave like them.” (I promised myself I’d still use the ladies room and never scratch weird places in public.)
Picture me walking to my office confidently, playing in my mind the song There’s a New Man in Town (YouTube it), thinking that if guys were assertive and got away with what they wanted, I would too—I’d just do what they did. Why not?
I started being direct and “assertive.” I faced conflict head-on. When I felt someone was stepping on me, I’d confront him on the spot. If someone cut me off in line, I didn’t wait to find out if it had been by mistake—I’d tap him or her on the shoulder and say, “Excuse me, the line is back there.”
Knowing that women are interrupted about three times as much as men, I’d make a stop sign with my hand when someone talked over me in a meeting, loudly say “I’m not finished,” and then keep talking.
Does this sound like “a quarrelsome woman” to you? It certainly didn’t seem that way to me, but at that time I didn’t know where to draw the line between assertive and aggressive. Back then I’d say things to myself like, “I don’t really care whether others like me or not—as long as I do my job well—or extremely well—it won’t matter.” Little did I know that being liked matters a lot, as I’ve told you.
I can’t tell you the opportunities I missed for not being "a cutie pie," because nobody was going to tell me, “We didn’t pick you for this project because you’re a bit of a ‘painful woman’.” Of course not—there would always be a “valid” reason.
Once I understood those unspoken rules, I knew something needed to change. Very likely, me.
Are you thinking perhaps you need to change something about yourself too? Did you pick up this book because you’re considering you might be perceived as too passive or too aggressive? Passive-aggressive, perhaps? Or have you realized you need better tools to deal with life when things don’t go your way?
If so, read on.
Come join me and learn to deal with difficult conversations effectively as a Christian woman.
DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS 101
My friend Michelle and her husband Kent were having a great time at a water park last summer. Suddenly, Kent saw a woman who seemed to be having a blast jumping up and down, laughing, and having a great time in the water. Only she had lost the top of her bikini.”
That’s how I usually start my conference on difficult conversations. At this point, I pause and enjoy looking at the audience’s reaction. When I’m telling this story to a group of women, they gasp empathetically. In mixed groups men grin.
Dumbfounded by his discovery, Kent did what any intelligent man would do (no, he didn’t run to get his camera): he went to ask his wife for direction. Talk about needing to know how to deal with an awkward conversation! Michelle said, “That woman will eventually figure it out on her own.” End of story.
But then both of them kept an eye on that woman. (Perhaps Kent kept two.)
Then the waves stopped, the woman came out of the pool, and they could see clearly that “she” was a man!
Can you imagine what could have happened if Kent had decided to go talk to that “lady”? Hopefully, he would have observed the truth of the matter before it was too late.
When I heard this story, I couldn’t believe it! Still, here’s my point: observing and getting our facts straight before having a delicate conversation is critical—and it’s one of the steps we need to follow when preparing.
But I’m getting ahead of myself—let’s start by defining “difficult conversation.”
What Is a Difficult Conversation?
By “a difficult conversation” I don’t mean the conversation you have with your half-asleep self every morning: "Should I hit the snooze button for the third time or should I finally wake up?" (Never mind, it’s probably only me.)
And I also don’t mean the conversation Kent and Michelle avoided having with the “lady” in the pool. Actually, that story is more about jumping to conclusions than about having to face a difficult conversation. It’s only difficult because the topic is sexual, and that makes it a delicate issue and embarrassing to handle. Had she lost one of her earrings instead, it would have been easy to go and tell her. (And maybe even help her to search for it.)
A difficult conversation is when you want to ask someone to start or to stop doing something.
A challenging conversation usually is not difficult due to embarrassment but rather because you’re asking someone else to change.
These are the type of situations we’ll be discussing:
· You want one of your co-workers to stop interrupting and talking over you during meetings.
· You want your supervisor to stop reprimanding you in public.
· You want your co-worker to stop gossiping about you behind your back.
· You want your mother-in-law to start calling before she shows up.
· You want your husband to start doing more housework.
· You want the sales superstar at your office to stop touching you.
· You want someone you love to quit being self-destructive and get professional help.
Why Have a Difficult Conversation?
About 500 years before the birth of Christ, Persia (the country we now call Iran) was the most powerful nation in the world. Its King Xerxes loved to throw splendid parties, many of which lasted several months. At one of those parties, after drinking for seven days, Xerxes was quite drunk and wanted to show everyone how beautiful his wife was. But when ordered to his presence, she refused to comply.
So the king gave her the boot (or the sandal).
Now His Majesty needed a new wife. He should have selected a new queen from one of the seven more powerful Persian families, as kings at that time did. Instead, he followed the recommendation of his advisers and sent officials to search his kingdom for suitable young girls.
Beautiful virgins were chosen, brought to the palace, and prepared for twelve months before spending just one night with the king—unless Xerxes asked for any of them again by name.
Esther, one of the virgins chosen by the king’s officers, took her turn after twelve months. “The king loved Esther more than all the women, and she won grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen.” (Esther 2:17)
Esther was an orphan raised by her cousin Mordecai as his own daughter. And Esther had a secret, which might have prevented her from marrying the king, had he known. Esther was a Jewess.
One day, Mordecai provoked the anger of the king’s highest advisor Haman by refusing to bow to him. Haman, indignant, requested and was granted the king’s permission to kill Mordecai and every other Jew in Persia. (We’ll talk about being thin skinned in a future chapter.)
This all happened almost 500 years before the birth of Christ, and at that time there were many Jews living in Persia. Their ancestors had been taken from Jerusalem to Babylon about a hundred years earlier, and now the Babylon Empire had been swallowed by Persia.
When Mordecai learned Haman’s plans, he asked Esther to confess her secret to her husband and ask him to spare the lives of her people.
Esther knew approaching the king without being summoned might get her killed. However, she put herself in the hands of God and courageously made her request to the king. The king promised to give her almost anything she wanted (Esther 5:1-3) and asked her who was threatening the Jews. Esther responded, and when Haman heard this and realized his fate, he threw himself at Esther’s feet. The king believed his advisor was attacking the queen and ordered his death.
Esther opened up to her husband about Mordecai's role in her life, and Xerxes appointed him as his highest advisor.
By daring to speak up, Esther saved her people from genocide.
Perhaps what’s at stake in your next difficult conversation is not as impactful as the threat Esther faced. Still, God encourages you to speak up even in mundane affairs—they may be mundane in the history of the world, but not to you or your loved ones.
 Sanders, T. (2006). The likeability factor: How to boost your L-factor and achieve your life’s dreams. New York, NY. Crown Publishers.