What to Do When a Conversation Drags You Down

by Ann Voskamp {click to get a free printable}

 by Ann Voskamp {click to get a free printable}

We can all find ourselves pulled into negative conversations from everything from the weather to politics to what great aunt so-and-so did last week. The start of a new year always feels like the blank page of a new journal so guarding our words and helping others around us do the same is perhaps more important now than ever.

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths,

but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs,

that it may benefit those who listen. Eph. 4:29

So if you find yourself in the middle of gossip or a gripe fest, what can you do?

Here’s my go-to list of three kinds of questions to ask to help the conversation get back on track (and if you’re the one doing the gossiping and griping, ask yourself these. ha!)

If you find yourself stuck in a negative conversation, ask a question that’s:

Personal – ex: What do you think will help? {Use when someone is saying, “The whole world/office/family is a mess.”}

Positive – ex: What’s going well in the middle of all of that? {Use when someone is saying, “Here are the ten reasons why the whole world/office/family is a mess.”}

Pointed – ex: What’s a small step you could take? {Use when someone is saying, “And if everyone else would just get their act together the world/office/family would no longer be a mess.”}

And, yes, the world/office/family is likely to be a mess–probably always has been, always will be. So while negative talk makes it feel like we’re doing something about that, we’re actually just wasting valuable time, words, and energy that could be used for encouraging others and acting on solutions {the little bit we really can do} instead.

Researcher John Gottman has shown that healthy marriages have a ratio of five positive comments for every negative one. I tend to think the same is true of all our other relationships too.

So give Jesus the gift of your words this new year–and you’ll be giving a powerful gift to those around you too. Let’s only speak words that make souls stronger.

What are your tips for conversations, especially this time of year?


  1. Angela says

    Preach it, Sister! :)

    “Speaking words that make souls stronger” pretty much sums up my personal mission.
    And you do it extremely well, Holley!

  2. Ronda says

    Would like to ask your opinion on something~~had a couple of friends, just yesterday, that were really having a hard time, and I felt that they “needed” to get their “gripe” out~~there are times when I feel the need to get something worked out verbally and understand that need in others…sometimes when people don’t seem to want to listen, but positize (my own word) everything, it makes me feel blown off, not really listened to~~would that make me wrong for needing to “vent” or for indulging those who may “need” to do that as well? I would really appreciate your input and thanks upfront :)

    • Sally says

      Hi Ronda, I’m looking forward to what Holley says on this, because I’m one of those people that you listen to. And I have to wonder if my giping really resolves anything, or if I just compound my frustration (while justifying myself and rehearsing the anger/frustration). I’m looking for others to say, “You’re right to be frustrated. He/she sounds like a real idiot!” and how God-honoring is that? So I guess I’d say listen if that’s what they/I need… but see if there’s a way to put a positive spin on it. Though that’s tricky too because I know I don’t receive replies like, “others have it much worse” or “maybe that person is having a bad day/has things going on in their lives”, etc. Those feel like they’re minimizing how _I_ feel.

      Wow, this is pretty complicated stuff! How do you affirm the griper without feeding into their gripings? And how as the griper do we receive that graciously? Maybe the answer to both is only God and the leading of the Holy Spirit. I guess that’s where I’ll start… by praying that :)

    • Holley says

      I think that is a wonderful question, Ronda! And like Sally says, there’s not an easy answer. Here’s what I think matters…
      Is the person getting the words out in a way that leads to healing? Proverbs says “reckless words pierce like a sword” and I think we can “vent” in a way that actually further wounds us.
      Look for healing and forward movement in your friends’ lives…even if it is very slow. If they’re completely “stuck” then venting isn’t going to help and it’s time to see someone like a counselor.
      Saying, “I’m really hurting and this situation in my life is so hard” leads to healing. So it may sound “negative” in the moment but it’s actually positive because of where it leads.
      Research has shown that “venting” (expressing ourselves without wisdom or self-control) doesn’t actually make things better (a big myth in our culture) but openly owning as well as sharing our feelings in safe relationships and taking responsibility for how we deal with those feelings does. So neither letting people “vent” destructively nor slapping a band-aid on their emotions works well. We need God’s approach of grace and truth side-by-side instead.

  3. Ana says

    This is such an important discussion to talk about. Just yesterday I was in a new small group for the very first time with a church I have attended for about a year. I didn’t really know anyone but most presented themselves with a nice handshake or a hug. A couple arrived late and we had started our discussion on the study when all of a sudden I had made a comment on the matter discussed on hand and this man who had just walked in nearly about attacked me verbally as he needed to get his point across. I must say I was a little shaken and yet I wasn’t going to let him get me upset. The others in group must have known what he was like already but I simply wanted to seriously “give him a piece of my mind”. I remember saying to myself “God please speak through me” and that man stopped attacking me. Long story, short, he later came to apologize and told me that he sometimes reacts this way? Oh really, great… My head said don’t worry fellow, I can fight fire with fire… but I didn’t let him hear that. So much for a great start for a small group? I would like to think that this was an isolated incident, but from what I heard and saw how he spoke to another group member I must say that this man needs to be spoken to by the group leader. I like to think that words can hurt or lift you up and that is why this message resonated with me today. Glad to see we can open up this subject and draw from one another on how to deal with much of what is necessary to open up about. Thanks Holley.

  4. Sally says

    Hi Holley, I was thinking over my day yesterday and all the griping I did (a LOT of griping!) and thinking how un-God honoring that is… then opened up mail and read your post. Ouch. Very timely for me. I’m going to really try not to be so negative. I like the P questions/filters above…

    Also reminds me of a poem my mom used to say:

    Be careful of the words you say,
    Keep them soft and sweet.
    You never know from day to day
    Which ones you’ll have to eat!!

    Thanks Holley and happy Friday!

    • Sally says

      I just went to say as a follow-up that following this has been a HUGE difference for me today, as I work in the same situations and with the same people but with an attitude more of grace. I can feel the difference in myself and also in the conversations I’ve had with others, some of whom heard me gripe yesterday.

      I prayed for and asked a trusted friend I’d griped to yesterday to pray for the guy who had so irritated me, but who was going into a very difficult meeting related to all this. I also talked to him and tried to talk courage and solutions into him, and also hope that next month it will be better. Felt right.

      LOL, it’s also sunnier today than it has been all week, and for me, that doesn’t hurt, but still and all, thanks for the encourage to do and love better!

  5. says

    I printed out this card off of A Holy Experience this past summer – it is taped to my kitchen cabinet. A constant reminder at the start of the day when I grab my coffee cup (because at 5:30AM the coffee is first) – and I see it there all day long. I struggle often with the taming of the tongue – but God is showing me grace in this… grace as I work with Him to reign it in. Thank you for the reminder.

  6. Lin C says

    Oh my this is certainly “God’s timing” in action! My son and daugher-in-law are working long hours right now and my two grandsons are staying with me. Just this morning my 8-year old grandson was short with my daughter (his aunt). He knows better, looked at me and rephrased his response from “We’re already done.” to “That’s a great idea Aunt Emily, but we’re done now. I’ll be sure to ask you next time, though, ok?” 8 years old! He then looked at me for confirmation….”I knew what to say right, didn’t I grandma? I wanted her to feel good and have a good day.”

    Brings tears to this Grandma’s eyes – and emphasises the fact that we need to teach them young and keeping teaching and living the good example.

    Thank you Holley for your posts – they so often fit perfectly into my life :-) !!


  7. Hope says

    Very wise! These comments would redirect the conversation quite gently. I am all too sure they will come in handy soon!

  8. Cindy says

    This is great! Thank you so much for sharing. I have a friend from another state who calls and talks for a very long time. There is often a lot of negative momologue coming forth. Whew! These are good questions. I also am praying about curtailing the “conversation.” She will ask me a question and quickly jump back in, sometimes before I can entirely answer or answer at all. She is lonely and struggling physically, among other things. She does have good testimony, too. She went through ovarian cancer and gives God the glory for healing her. It is hard for me to break in to what she is saying, but I probably should put forth more effort to do that, especially with the questions given here. :) God bless you richly!

  9. Bre C. says

    This is amazing!! These questions are great to ask others (and yourself) without sounding like you’re placing blame. I’m always finding myself trying to get out of a bad conversation, but I never know the right way to turn the conversation without just shouting “this is wrong and you’re wrong for talking about it!” Your questions are more open and positive! I will most definitely be incorporating these techniques in my life everyday!!! Thank you sooooo much!! It’s like you speak to my heart with every post you write!

  10. Lin C says

    This asking ‘what small step can I make / what can I do to improve the ‘situation’ reminds of conversations during the recent elections. I became so tired of hearing opinions and bashing of candidates, government, etc., etc., that finally my reply became “Wow, you have some really great ideas – please do let me know when you get your name on the ballot and I may just be able to work on your campaign and help you get things straightened out!” Some took it as a joke, some were rather taken aback, but I was serious. So much complaining but so few willing to step up to the plate…I would be more than happy to support positive attitudes and reinforcement of compasion and understanding. (and, no, I’m not interested in running for office myself – I did get that response a few times, too!)

  11. Lisa says

    Thank you for this post. A great reminder of how to pepper conversations with grace. Timely too as I just spent an hour in conversation with a family member who is quite negative. Trying so hard to not go over the edge and join in the negativity, I struggled with my own words. Wondering if they sound like hers and resolving to use “my words” to glorify and honor Him.
    My heartfelt prayer lately has been for God to use me in such a manner as to share my words with others in print. (My God-size dream) :-) This has been great motivation for me.

    Thank you for sharing.

  12. Pat, NJ says

    Seriously, this really hit home for me. As I was struggling to come up with a God sized dream I had no idea where to start. I have been pondering the thought for days. As the new year began I had promised myself that I would take one day at a time and try to make the best of it. Take little steps and if I fall then strive to do better tomorrow. I have so many flaws, at times I wonder how God could really love me. Like Sally I do alot of griping and honestly I need to focus on the positive. I seem to never say the right words and so I hold back expressing myself and keep things within. I think God may have led me to a place where I just might be able to change all that and be a positive influence to others. I hope I can make a difference. Thank you all so very much

  13. carlotta says

    haha! i think i have asked myself all these questions. thanks for sharing these :) i have a question though. what do you say to someone who talks about himself for about 99.9% of the conversation?

  14. Margaret says

    Although I appreciate that you shared this with the world, you were clearly speaking straight. to. my. heart. It’s as if you have been an observer in our home these last few days. So, I may or may not just have to read this a THOUSAND times a day. Thank you for sharing so eloquently and honestly and gently.

  15. Becky D says

    Just read your post – scrolled to the end and clicked on the link “Getting Rid of Guilt for Good” Yes…gratitude IS the answer. I am soooo very blessed. But I also have a cold that seems to have dragged on forever and I feel guilty for the piles of paperwork that needs to be gone through, the heap of laundry, the dust that has settled on every surface of my home. Thank you God for a home that needs to be cleaned, for all the paperwork that is part of my very full and messy life, for having clothes to keep me warm. And thank you for the time to catch up on e-mails (the only thing that I seem to be able to do right now) and for Holley and her gracious posts.

  16. Emily H. Lucas says

    Holley, thank you for this message. One of my prayers daily is, “GOD’ please hold my tongue today and let me speak only words of kindness so that I make no enemies”. This message is su encouraging to me.. Hope your day is filled with love, joy, and blessings.

  17. HONEY says

    What a great read! Too many times we find ourselves in these situations, making us feel strained and uncomfortable. Too many times we begin searching ourselves as what to say and when to say it….and sometimes those times never come. In the very presence of negative conversations, we often times don’t want to interrupt the one venting or just plain speaking. But I have come to realize that speaking up, and putting a voice to my convictions, sometimes give pause to those speaking and even gives ear to my encouragement. However, there have been those times that no matter what you speak is heard or counted as they are lost in their own misery, fear and shame. So if we allow ourselves to walk a mile in their shoes and openly give ear to their words, heart to their plight, and thought to what they really need at that very moment, we might truly be able to serve them with grace and mercy and God will allow us to give generous portions. We never know the power of our power…..but He does and if we allow Him to lead us and if we follow His lead, we cannot go wrong.
    This world is full of negative influences, but for me, I often times find myself walking away from such conversations and it allows me space and time to pray openly for their needs and my reactions. Often times it is how we respond to situations that we can make lemonade out of lemons. The tongue is a small tissue, but the most powerful one when it comes to pain and hurting or calm and healing. Choose healing words, soothing words, encouraging word, words that lift those that need lifting to a whole ‘nother level of faith. Choose the right things to do and you will never be wrong. Go with God in all circumstances

    • Sally says

      Honey, I’ve felt like you do, that sometimes what I’m saying to someone is just not being received, and I’ve also had people tell me things I just didn’t want to accept about myself, but it plants a seed. The next time I do the same thing they’re getting on me about, it makes me pause, and makes me that much more willing to listen and to change.

      And like you say, “… if we allow Him to lead us and if we follow His lead, we cannot go wrong.” That’s good stuff… He works it to the good, and sometimes we don’t see it. Thanks for you graceful and loving response to conversations and for knowing some it’s best to walk away and pray.

  18. Beth Horvath says

    It’s funny how timely your post is…I belong to a Bible Study group which has a leader who is very opinionated, but won’t admit it. She blindly accepts rules from man-made decisions and seems to decide that those who don’t follow aren’t doing the right thing. People are afraid to stand up to her and I’m beginning to think that she has a psychological problem. I have stood up to her and gotten nothing but grief. What do you suggest, the next time this happens?

  19. Evaughn says

    I am a whiner and this is a timely rebuke. I need prayers to guard my heart and my thoughts for out of them spring the words I say/ utter. Lord, have mercy!

  20. Leslie says

    Thank you for seeing thru to the hook that draws me in…..that i could help if I somehow get involved….thank you~ also, do you have a creative tree with hearts on it for people’s homes for sale at Dayspring? Thank you…Leslie.

  21. Anita says

    Thanks so much Holley. I’ve been inept in this and have lots to learn. It is interesting to begin to see how JESUS responded to genuine questions, trick questions and other conversations. HIS answers to genuine questions are earnest, surprisingly on unexpected lines, transporting people to a higher ground. HE chooses to be silent or to speak in response to trick questions. When HE chooses to speak, HE often shoots HIS own question at them (flooring them every time), instead of replying to their question. HE makes the short-sighted Sadducees see the stupid long-term implications of their mistaken belief. HE always looks up to the FATHER and in all HIS conversations HE urges people to do the same. HIS name is “Wonderful!”

  22. says

    It is with great humility and awe that I remind myself I am a counselor in G-d. He gifts me with the ability TO be of service to Him and others. So being able to hear and listen…to wait for an opening door and a moment of willingness where I can share what I’ve wandered through and come to know– There’s an opportunity to offer hope, healing, encouragement that there IS another way, there IS light and love…… Why would I not take that which gets placed in front of me for the opportunity that it is?
    Pause. Ask G-d to direct my thinking and help me help and encourage……
    Sometimes it’s about the seed of hope.
    Sometimes I don’t get to see the end results of that seed–and that’s okay. I can rest knowing I’ve done my part in the big scheme of things and brought TO the life of another person.

    Yes–bring the message positively. Bring the message with hope and love.
    We are all charged to encourage each other, are we not?

    Is it necessary? Is it kind? Is it true? Those are the questions I get to ask myself before I speak. And I pause until what I offer meets all three of those criterion. Very similar to the ones posted–It’s another human beings life–and despite sometimes feeling ‘entitled’ to my opinion, I never get to know the bigger plan G-d has going on. But I do know what I’m charged with–and that’s to love others. And be of service. To encourage others….. We all need to be mindful of exactly what it is that we’re encouraging, eh?

    I adore the lovely card–it will serve to remind me that what I DO, what I speak….needs to be and will be wrapped in love. Awesome post!
    Thank you for keeping my focus honed in on when it’s most effective.

  23. Joyce Veronica Varlack says

    Thanks Holley, I like you too. You’re one of my favorite authors. Your posts are very insightful, easy to read and encouraging. Thank you ♥

  24. Ana Maria Amaro says

    Thank youu, Holley. You are a real blessing to many of us. I really appreciate your love and words of encouragement. I think I will pass those SPEAK WORDS THAT MAKE SOULS STRONGER onto some of my students for them to share with others. I am truly thankful for reminding me to speak words of encouragement and hope to others.

    God bless you (Almería, Spain)

  25. says

    Wow…., I am just gobsmacked by this message. I’m not a gossiper, but a gripper. Instead of approaching the person who wronged me I will always complain about them to the next close person.

    I pray that the Lord teach me forgiveness and move on from the past, because they are lessons in life.
    Great work Holley! Continue to be used by the Lord

  26. alecia says

    ok Yes I agree with everyone -once again you have talked to us streaght cut to our hearts. Woman solve more verbally then men and we tend to talk more. When we have bben scorned or hurt our mouths react . Don’t mess with us 😉
    I have run out of an opportunity to read all responses i will come back and read more. But I post one more thought. As I come closer to 40 turning 38 this year.
    My moods are greatly up and down and i boldly ask woman around me do you find that menapause have an impaact on this issue. I found that i was so much better at calmness when i was younger . I also find it harder and harder to find grace when somone hurts with words, actions, or bodly harm to my children will have a furry of mom . I don’t know if i am making words clear i am suffering from a cold and my head hurts. This is a complex thought for I do know i must grip to think things thru the close friends keep me focus on solving the issue at hand. I have found valadation in my feelings but somethings are not able to be solved by us only the lord. When do we let go and let him take the wheel? alll the time :-) It dose pay to have good friends.

  27. says

    So interesting…A friend of mine is having some family troubles. I am very close to her and her family. I really find myself jumping in there with her and end up leaving the conversation down. So it’s true…it doesn’t help to gripe. It does make us feel worse. Thanks for very specific ways to counteract negative talk.
    In answer to your question…tips for conversations, I thought immediately of “I” statements…a lesson I learned to apply to my marriage. When having conversations, especially to help heal hurts or confront lovingly, “I” statements really help to keep lines of communication open and avoid defensive responses. “I feel hurt when (blank) happens” as opposed to “You hurt me when you (blank). My two cents…

  28. Anna says

    This really hit home for me. I need to stop trying to lead my grown children in the direction I want them to go. I have planted the seeds of faith in them and now it’s time for them to tend to them. It’s difficult but not impossible for all things are possible with God. My responsibility or should I say task is to simply love them right where they are. Love hearing from you. God’s blessings to you and yours.

  29. Candace says

    Hi, Holley.
    My father is what I call a joy sucker. He has nothing positive to say any time I talk to him, from downing every single family member (and I am sure downing me to them), and even my mother who passed away 2 years ago, horribly. How does one cope with that without getting angry, hurt, and allowing it to bring me down? I want an open door to a relationship with my father, but honestly, I avoid him more than I should. There are days I just can’t hear any more. Is there a way to politely tell a person how they affect others with their negativity?

    Thanks for the advice.

      • Agnes says

        Hi Candace, I have a mom who acts similarly, and I don’t know your dad so can’t say what would work with him. What works with my mom is that I tend to show very little interest when she talks badly about others, and change the subject, so she gets the hint or at least is diverted. Have a little arsenal of subject you can safely talk to him about (any hobbies? Books he’s reading, gardening, etc? Sports?) and divert to those when he starts the negative talk. Or just start talking about something positive in your own life that you feel safe sharing. What I’ve noticed with my mom is that what the negativity is about is that she wants to put her unhappiness on me, so leaves me feeling worse and she’s probably feeling better. If this is your dad, recognize his unhappiness and then just let it go. You’re not responsible for it, he is. That may sound harsh, but good fences make good neighbours (ie boundaries are important :D) Blessings, and I pray that you can find some peace in how you relate to your dad!

        • Candace says

          Agnes, thank you so much for the advice, and it is good advice! I had never thought about trying to turn the conversation, just how I was to get through it! I’ll save your response and be ‘brainstorming’ before his next call, about what I can use in our conversations to get him on a better topic. Bless you!

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