RLL 20--Church Camp and Yellow Card: Difficult Conversations and Leadership

Church Camp and Yellow Card:

Difficult Conversations

This past weekend was a busy one in the Hawbaker household: one daughter had a Friday night soccer game followed by a weekend-long church camp. The other daughter had a basketball tournament all day Saturday, and my wife’s family was celebrating Chinese New Year (her brother’s family adopted a young girl from China a couple years ago, and so this has become a new family tradition). In addition to all of those things, my soccer team had a tournament as well, and so I was busy coaching most of the weekend.

After the rush ended this morning, I was reflecting on the various events, and in doing so I was struck by one common theme that came up for me which has a direct bearing on leadership: difficult conversations and why they are necessary. For me, there were three such talks that particularly stood out this weekend: one conversation with my daughter, one with a referee, and one with an opposing coach. What they all had in common was that they were focused on topics that make me uneasy, or which required me to accept responsibility for things I had done poorly. But, after having engaged in all three of them I also came away realizing that each situation was better because of having had those conversations.

The first conversation was with my daughter on Friday afternoon, and it was admittedly the least difficult of the three. She is almost fourteen years old, and the topic of the conversation was about friends and boys and young teenage relationships in general. I have never been a fan of my daughters growing up, mostly because I remember being a teenage boy and thus am familiar with how they think. I also know that, no matter what I do, the girls will grow up; and so, I know the best thing is to continue having these difficult conversations, even when they make me uncomfortable.

Hanging out with the daughters on a fun afternoon

Hanging out with the daughters on a fun afternoon

Thankfully, my older daughter is very open with me when we talk: she tells me about the boy she likes, and she tells me how her friends tease her about it. She tells me about how the other boys in her group of friends give her a hard time and make her face turn red. And she tells me how excited she gets when she sees the particular boy that she likes. All of these things make me varying degrees of uncomfortable, for different reasons: it’s hard that she’s growing up, and I want to protect her from teasing and from heartache, and yet I know that those are situations that she mostly will have to learn to navigate on her own.

Thus, as her father, the best thing I can do is to try to provide guidance so that when she is faced with various situations she is as prepared as possible to make good decisions. As a leader, this is what we must do in our various contexts, whether at home at work or in a volunteer position. When there is a difficult issue, I know that many times the easiest option is to ignore it and hope that it works itself out, but I also know from experience that that rarely occurs. Thus it becomes necessary to have these conversations in order to facilitate a better environment or culture for the group. In this case, the goal of having these talks with my older daughter is to help her make decisions that are good for her in both the short term and the long term.

The other two conversations revolved around my soccer tournament this weekend. During our Friday night game, the play was very physical and rather heated, and I became concerned that players might get hurt. In my frustration I purposely yelled in such a way as to force the referee to issue me a yellow card, which (for those who are unfamiliar with soccer terminology) is an official warning and type of rebuke. If a coach or player receives two in the same game, he or she is ejected and cannot return. In addition to that, while things were still heated, I had a verbal exchange with the opposing coach, which almost never goes well. He responded in kind, and both of us came across looking rather immature and setting a poor example for our players. Those mistakes were actually the easier parts of the situation.

The hard part was that when the game ended Friday night, I felt unsettled about the whole situation. I knew I had behaved poorly and that I needed to attempt to reconcile those situations. So I went to the referee and I apologized for yelling the way I had. I still didn’t agree with her decisions, nor did I appreciate how she approached the situation. However, the truth of the matter is that, as the referee, her decisions are the ones that matter; my opinion is merely my opinion, and it makes no difference in her decision-making. As I told my team afterward, I had treated her merely as a referee, and in doing so I failed to treat her as a person who is refereeing.

The same thing was true in my exchange with the opposing coach. I unconsciously ceased to view him as a person, instead viewing him as just an opponent, and when I did that I allowed my frustration to get the better of me. However, I also knew that after the game I was still not in a great frame of mind to try to apologize, and so I waited and then went and found him in between games on Saturday. We talked, we both apologized and shook hands, and I believe we both went away from the exchange feeling better. He admitted that he hadn’t taken my words personally, that he knew it was all in the heat of competition, and I appreciated his honesty. We still didn’t agree about the game or some of the calls, but now we were disagreeing cordially, as opposed to disagreeing angrily. And the difference there is crucial to leadership.

Disagreements that become personal often become elevated very quickly, and then the disagreement often morphs into personal attacks rather than just a disagreement about an external situation. We also observe this in family life, when what started as a disagreement over what television channel to watch turns into a name-calling fest where feelings and relationships are damaged.

In sports, as in life, it’s very easy to forget that people are people, and so we often treat workers as workers rather than as people who are working at a particular job. Think of the hotel clerks, waiters, or cashiers that we have all seen mistreated by irritable customers (and remember that sometimes we are those irritable customers). In family situations we often allow our emotions to get the best of us and we resort to personal attacks, using hurtful names or bringing up often irrelevant past wrongs simply for the sake of ‘winning’ an argument. (Does that ever really happen? There’s a chapter about that topic in my book coming out this summer!)

But when we remember that people are people, and we try to treat them with the respect that all humans deserve, it makes us more humble. When I’m angry about a referee’s call, I need to be reminded that the referee’s decision matters more than mine; that’s not always fun or even fair, but it’s still true. And how often do we say that sort of things to children and young people? “Life’s not fair.” It’s true for adults, too, though we often tend to forget it in our pride. As leaders, we cannot afford to let our pride cause us to dehumanize people, though this will happen to all of us. And when others dehumanize us and attack us, we must have the maturity and humility not to respond on kind. On the occasions when we have failed at both of those, as we inevitably will, may God grant us the humility and grace to go back and apologize and seek forgiveness, in the name of restoring good relationships.

Action Step: What difficult conversation do you need to have with someone in your circle? Ask yourself why you have been avoiding having it, and then decide if it’s worth it to continue putting it off.