When I became a dad, I was so excited to hold my son for the first time. There’s nothing quite like holding your newborn baby in your arms. Aside from the cuteness, I’m always struck by a newborn’s innocence.

It’s a new life, a clean slate. Over the child’s lifetime, he or she will eventually do stupid and immature things. The kid will make mistakes and pay the consequences. But for that moment in your arms, all he can do is sleep.

As Caleb got older, we ran into the inevitable behavioral issues. We had to teach him not to bite when he kisses us, take toys from other kids, or stick things in light sockets. Now that he is in preschool, we’re correcting other issues.

He’s learning that not every word he hears on the playground is one he should repeat. Last year, we called him our threenager. He hated getting out of bed in the morning, always had his own agenda, and was more than vocal about when our plans conflicted with his.

As any good parent will tell you, it’s impossible to raise a child without having difficult conversations and confrontational moments. You simply can’t help your baby grow into a good person without addressing selfishness, disobedience, or disrespect when they come up. They can’t be well-adjusted if you’re unwilling to help them see unpleasant truths about themselves.

I’d love to say this gets easier over time but it doesn’t. We all need this correction at various times in our lives, leading to often difficult conversations. Some people are comfortable confronting friends and family with their weaknesses or character flaws. They’re completely fine “telling you like it is.” Others, like me, find these conversations physically painful. Confrontation doesn’t come easily and it takes courage to initiate them.

Regardless of your bend, Paul encourages us to have these conversations. In his letter to the Ephesians, he stresses the importance of unity in the Church and offers this thought:

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.

Ephesians 4:14-15

His command his clear. Don’t avoid these conversations. Helping each other see flaws, weaknesses, and character issues in our lives is critical to spiritual growth and greater unity in the Church. But we’re also commanded to speak “the truth in love.” Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Speaking with love isn’t mechanical. There aren’t magic words to use or a certain way to carry yourself when doing it. But it’s still critical.

You can’t fake it.

I often encourage others to speak truth in love or don’t speak it at all. As Christians, we’re known for speaking truth to culture but the “with love” part is often missing. But this isn’t an optional add-on. It’s not a way of getting spiritual bonus points.

Failing to speak truth with the love component is no less sinful than failing to speak at all. But here’s the key to doing it well:

You actually have to love them!

You can’t fake love. The prerequisite to speaking truth in love is that love must actually exist. I’m able to discipline my son without it disrupting our relationship because I deeply love him with all my heart. My love and respect for him is unconditional and my discipline is a component of it. Because of my love for him, those difficult conversations don’t threaten our relationship. They actually strengthen it.

If you don’t actually love that friend or family member, you don’t have the right to speak into his or her life. With love comes trust, and with trust comes the ability to help him or her grow.

What Love Does to the Conversation

So what does speaking truth in love actually look like? I Corinthians 13 offers some practical characteristics of love that easily apply to these difficult conversations in a relationship.

It adds patience. When you enter hard conversations, it’s hard for the other person to respond the right way or correct issues in his or her life immediately. Patience is critical. Love doesn’t just point out or address an issue. It patiently walks through that issue with encouragement and respect over an extended period of time. It’s committed to keep going, even when tension arises. (vs. 4)

It adds kindness. There should always be an element of kindness when approaching someone with a difficult truth. Gentleness and respect are the most obvious signs that you actually care for that other person. (vs. 4)

It roots for the other person. Love wants the other person to succeed. It doesn’t point out failures to cut someone down. It doesn’t wish emotional harm in the process. It addresses issues to build that person up, to help him or her grow and overcome weaknesses he doesn’t yet see. (vs. 4)

It approaches the conversation selflessly. It doesn’t point out another person’s weaknesses for personal gain. Love doesn’t seek its own agenda or fulfillment of its own needs by pointing out someone else’s flaws. It addresses areas of growth purely to help that person grow. (vs. 4)

It doesn’t anger easily. This goes along with patience. Love doesn’t fly off the handle. It approaches the conversation thoughtfully, prayerfully, and with empathy. (vs. 5)

It’s constantly forgiving. The weakness you address with your friend will likely still come up. Overcoming character flaws isn’t like flipping a light switch. The other person will likely mess up again and will need someone by his or her side. Love forgives over and over again. (vs. 5)

It gives the benefit of the doubt. Love doesn’t assign ulterior motives to the other person. It assumes the best and sees weakness through the larger context of his or her strengths. (vs. 7)

As Christians, we often see speaking truth as a mandate, while understanding “with love” as a suggestion. Together, they constitute a command.

Discuss: What have you learned about speaking truth in love through your relationships?