Watching the Olympics, I find myself mesmerized by the skill, timing, and rhythm of the hurdlers. With ease, they keep their momentum moving forward until the finish line is in sight.

But what happens when their tempo is suddenly interrupted by an injury or when another athlete unexpectedly comes into their lane? They fall down—sometimes in pain or defeat.

Have you ever felt like you are stumbling over a hurdle when talking to someone about a topic that is important to you? Even if you think you know the perfect conversation starter, awkward silence, unsure words, and feeling unprepared in the moment can make us feel like a fallen athlete.

As you approach the hurdle, you send up a quick prayer for words that are wise, educated, and humble, and that have enough humorous undertones to make what we are saying heard.

My heart and work for children and families in a developing country means that I also have the privilege of talking to others about the growing importance of alternative orphan care—work I love talking about—but doing so in a way that is informative and approachable.

Sometimes these conversations occur unexpectedly, but exactly when God has planned them to happen. Recently, at my son’s basketball game, a friend sat next to me and with great enthusiasm shared her excitement about the money her church had raised to build a new orphanage. She gleefully expressed her gratitude for the way people generously responded to the call to care for orphans.

As I listened to her, I was already having an internal conversation in my own head dissuading her church from supporting formal residential care and conveying the importance family permanence as the foundation of care for orphans and vulnerable children.

When we preserve the institution of family, I silently countered, we make a significant (and permanent) impact on the orphan and vulnerable child. Even more than that, we have an impact on the community, society, nation, and world. The exponential difference we make when we acknowledge family as the cornerstone of our individual identity, and our community, is life changing.

I wanted to tell her right then and there about the important shift my heart made when it came to learning about alternative family care. I was already at the finish line before giving her a chance to make the journey on her own.

In that moment of my friend’s sharing, however, I consciously slowed down my running pace, chose to have a listening heart, changed my focus, and saw the hurdles before me as a clear reminder to scale back a bit.

Have you ever been in this situation? It’s a tough place to be. Even though I know that the root of helping children should drive us to preserving and strengthening families, I couldn’t open the conversation with my friend by telling her that. I had to pace my rhythm and trust God’s gentle voice telling me to just listen for now and follow up later.

Although I desperately wanted the outcome of our bleacher chat to be positive, productive, and thought provoking, I was reminded by the words of another dear friend and mentor—tough conversations are better taken in small bites and involve more listening than talking

Addressing complex topics like alternative orphan care requires an understanding that involves several discussions, each one built upon the trust and safety of previous conversations. If I had gone into my sprint that afternoon, I likely would have left both my friend and myself feeling as though we had face-planted on the track.

Through the five tips below, the skill, timing, and rhythm of clearing hurdles gets a bit easier with every conversation.

  1. Listen actively: This might be the single most important component. If you read no further, and you walk away with a listening heart, that will be success!
  2. Ask questions: As you listen, you will often hear a common heart behind the words. The desire to provide for those in need is good and the intentions are right. Questions help us understand the path that leads to specific actions. This is a good place to start when shifting the conversation toward alternative care.
  3. Talk about family: We all have a family, and through every celebration and every challenge, we understand that family plays a significant role in the life of every human. I believe that if you are doing orphan care, you should also be working with families. They go together.
  4. Share: Stories are powerful. They have the seamless ability to change perspectives, incite change, and push boundaries. Heartwarming and heartbreaking stories are equally important.
  5. Follow up: Remember, many small conversations will help your overall message be more willingly received. Share resources that will allow a person the individual time and space to think and learn. Check to make sure there is good understanding and then circle back to #1!

So how am I training for the next race? By taking many steps (some through casual bleacher encounters and some through more detailed discussions) of sharing the lessons I have learned through what I have seen and experienced firsthand. And I know this: Families touch every human and they should be nurtured and protected. Directing the conversation about orphan care toward family is an important shift that takes patience, humility, and one step at a time.

With a heart for orphans and vulnerable children in some of the world’s poorest countries, Cari Armbruster’s role as Executive Director at Alliance for Children Everywhere (ACE) stems from a seasoned career in nursing, healthcare administration, and family advocacy positions. For 11 years, Cari held a series of fulfilling nursing and organizational roles at Seattle Children’s Hospital before starting her dedicated volunteer path with orphans in 2001. With a natural affinity for producing health related policies and procedures, she helped to develop standards of care for a temporary crisis care facility in Zambia that has been advocating for children and families since 1999. Her passion for child welfare, family empowerment, and education for the world’s most vulnerable children and their families is evident throughout every aspect of the ACE partnership. Cari resides in Edmonds, Washington (USA) with her husband, Erich, and two children, where they enjoy many Pacific Northwest outdoor activities as well as being active in their local church community.