axiomAuthor Catherine Johnson wrote a book fifteen years ago titled Lucky in Love. She’s a Ph.D. who was determined to figure out what deliriously happy married couples were so deliriously happy about. So she interviewed them—about a hundred couples in all. Want to know the one key learning she made? She found that at some point along the way, every happy couple had come to a critical point in their relationship where they covenanted together that they would vociferously disagree but refuse to destroy each other in the process. They could give you the time, date, and location when they finally established that no matter how difficult the conversation, they simply would not verbally attack each other. “When we quarrel (and we will!), we’re not going to do the kinds of things that will damage this relationship long-term,” Johnson quoted these couples as saying. “When we disagree, we will not draw blood.”

The moment I read that phrase, I decided to put it into practice in my work as well as in my marriage. Because I have deep feelings about so many kingdom issues, I have been known to express myself very passionately in meetings. And as you probably know, passion can beget passion. Effective leaders do not fear passion. They welcome it. But from time to time passionate discussions digress into personal attacks, and real people get really hurt. In my view, leaders must head that off before it happens. Your team must know that as the leader, you will never sit idly by and allow a meeting to turn into an alley fight.

Recently in a large public forum, a man asked me a question that was so sarcastic and mean-spirited that our security team rose to the ready. I have been through this kind of thing many times, and so reflexively, I asked the rest of the people in the room to quiet themselves before I addressed the verbal terrorist himself. I said, “In golf, when a player hits a terrible tee shot, his friends may be gracious enough to give him a mulligan, a do-over shot with no penalty attached to it. Just pure grace. Now, sir, your question was clearly a personal attack aimed at me without a shred of evidence to back up what you’re saying. I’m willing to answer your question honestly right here in front of everybody, but only if you are willing to restate it in a kinder way.” The crowd erupted in applause.

The man took a minute to rephrase his question, and upon asking it far more civilly the second time, the applause was deafening. Our congregation will remember that moment for a long time.

Once the “disagree without drawing blood” language is ingrained in a culture and the senior-most leader insists on enforcing that value it represents, a kind of protection is provided for everyone.

The Ephesians 4 “truth in love” passage starts off with Paul telling Christ-followers to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” He runs through what makes up this type of life, things like humility, gentleness, patience, and peace. Leader, insist on leading in a manner that contributes to unity, even in the heat of disagreement.

Hybels, B. (2008). Axiom: powerful leadership proverbs. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.