Cultivate Humility in Conversation

Heather Holleman
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I’ll confess this: Before I became a Christian, I was self-absorbed and self-involved. I was a child who talked way too much, or, to put it kindlier, I had “high articulation needs.” I heard this nearly every day: “Heather, stop talking. Heather, please, please, please be quiet. Heather! Let someone else talk. If you don’t stop talking, I’m going to go crazy.”

The irony of all this talking is that I said much but connected little. I was like a little dog yapping around everyone’s feet, begging for attention. I never learned how to use my words to love other people or engage them in warm conversations. Instead, I monologued, spewed, and yammered. I was the fool of Proverbs 18:2 (NIV) who “finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing [her] own opinions.” To give you a final picture of my endless and pointless talking, I would talk to the air. As an eight-year-old, I’d pace around my backyard and recite the Gettysburg Address for fun. I didn’t even need an audience.

“Let others be most important for once.”

And I was lonely. Deeply lonely. The kind of lonely where you stare out the window with tears streaming down your face because you know friends are out there but you cannot figure out how to make them.

And I was dysfunctional. When I realized I wasn’t making any friends, I became a people-pleaser and used flattery and compliments to try to bait people into liking me.

And I was awkward. I’d sit in a room, fiddle with the buttons on my sweater, reposition my glasses and think, “I don’t belong here. I don’t belong anywhere. I don’t know how to feel connected to people. I don’t know how to have a conversation that means anything at all.”

Maybe you’ve felt this way. Maybe you have had tears in your eyes like I do now as I write this. Lonely. Dysfunctional. Isolated. Awkward. But then, Jesus entered in to rehabilitate how I spoke. That’s right: I learned from the Bible how to have a loving conversation, and the Holy Spirit changed me so profoundly that if you knew me before I began my relationship with Jesus you’d be astonished at the change.

Learning From Philippians

My journey begins with the deep conviction that came with reading perhaps one of the most personally challenging passages of Scripture. You’ll find it in the book of Philippians, a letter written by the apostle Paul to the Christians in the Roman colony of Philippi around AD 62. It’s a letter that answers these questions: How shall we live as good citizens in God’s kingdom? What does spiritual progress look like? What is Christian maturity?

In the second chapter of this letter, Paul writes this: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Phil. 2:3–7)

I remember reading this passage for the first time as a young woman. The words stung my heart. I saw myself for the first time: I didn’t value others as more important or more significant than myself. I didn’t look out for the interests of others. I didn’t serve others or “empty myself” as Jesus did.

Instead of humility, I was prideful and superior as I spoke to others. Instead of caring about others, I only talked about my own problems. Instead of serving others with my words to encourage and comfort, I only served myself and thought about what I could gain from a conversation, not what I could lovingly give.

I thought carefully about Philippians 2 for years. In the Greek translation, when you count others as more significant than yourself, the verb means to esteem exceedingly. How would anyone know I esteemed them exceedingly if I didn’t tell them in conversation? How could I change the disposition of my heart to adopt that key mindset of positive regard, of not only believing the best, but truly holding someone up in my mind as more important than I am? (This is one of those impossible tasks that makes the Holy Spirit real to me; only God can do this kind of work in a heart as self-centered and self-exalting as mine.) I began, by the power of the Holy Spirit at work to mature me, to see other people as royalty, as VIPs, as marvelous celebrities. Imagine how you’d behave in conversation if you met Her Majesty the Queen (yes, her proper title—I watch The Crown!). Imagine how you’d behave in conversation if you met your favorite celebrity or your favorite leader in any field. Imagine your excitement. Imagine the honor. Imagine what you’d ask them.

Changing How We Think of Others

Now think of your neighbor who maybe annoys you. Maybe you’d never talk to someone like her. But wait. Queen. Celebrity. Honored Guest. Think of your children like this. Your spouse. Your coworkers.

When I began thinking this way, the first noticeable change for me involved my interaction with my students. I even told them to look to their left and right and imagine the person beside them would one day become a global superstar or even a world leader. How would that change how you treated them? The exercise brought awkward giggles and uncomfortable shifting in seats, but I made the point: the person beside you is a treasure, a marvel, a storehouse of infinite potential. That day, we let others go first through the doorway. We let others be most important for once.

The second change came when people started to tell me how they felt around me. My colleague said, “You make people feel really special when you talk to them.” I almost cried; I was so happy I was growing like this. But it wasn’t just the mindset of positive regard and choosing to value others before myself that built the groundwork for a loving conversation. Paul’s words also deeply challenged me to ask better questions as I read, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” How would I know the interests of others if I didn’t ask them? How else could I figure out what other people worry about or care about? I began regularly asking others about their current projects and major concerns. I asked what thoughts most occupied their minds. I would then imagine that this concern was now part of my own. I’d follow up in the coming days and ask about whatever we talked about. I’d look for ways I could encourage and help based on whatever my colleague, student, friend, or family member shared with me. My loving conversations, rooted in Philippians 2, became my primary act of service and the way I humbled myself to take on the nature of a servant.

I want to grow in my ability to connect with others through loving conversations. I want to see conversations as a sacred space. Let’s think about our next conversation as a way to honor others above ourselves, to value others above ourselves and take an interest in them, to encourage one another, to demonstrate kindness and compassion, and ultimately, to love people. When we do this, we reflect God’s character.

For Further Reading:

The Six Conversations

by Heather Holleman

It’s time for a conversation revival! Conversation is getting harder. We’re feeling more isolated. Loneliness is becoming an...

book cover for The Six Conversations