The Prophet & The King: A Story About Effective Confrontation
Your mission—should you choose to accept it—is to stand alone, unarmed, before a powerful dictator and convince him to express genuine remorse for crimes he has committed.
That’s "Mission: Impossible," right?
After all, the odds of you coming away from that confrontation unscathed—or even alive—are pretty slim.
Yet, that’s essentially the mission a Hebrew prophet named Nathan accepted about 3,000 years ago. And his story gives us insight into how we, as entrepreneurs, can more effectively confront people today—including those who hold power over us—in a way that impacts and influences their behavior.
The prophet’s primary job in Ancient Israel was to be God’s mouthpiece, delivering his message to the people and the king. And when the audience didn’t like what they were hearing, they often took out their displeasure on the prophet, sometimes through bodily harm. So, you can imagine the danger prophets faced when delivering bad news to the king—it didn’t usually end well for them.
Now, David was the king of Israel at the time. He grew up as the classic underdog—the David in the “David and Goliath” story. He was a lowly shepherd boy and the last of his brothers to be considered for the throne.
But what David lacked in size and social status, he made up in faith, courage, and heart to persist through adversity. He eventually became king, often referred to as “a man after God’s own heart.”
Then came the temptation that would threaten his rule—and his reputation as someone who exemplified the heart of God.
While his army was off at war, David remained at the palace. And from his balcony, he noticed a beautiful woman below and decided that he would send an assistant to bring her to him. She was married to a man who was a loyal soldier in David’s army, away from home fighting for his country.
But David decided to have an affair with her anyway and, not long after, received word that she became pregnant with his child.
David tried to cover it up, first by giving orders for the husband to take leave from the war and be home with his wife. This way, when word would get out about the woman's pregnancy, the husband and others wouldn’t think anything unusual about it.
But the husband refused to leave the battle, ironically, out of loyalty to his king.
So, David escalated the cover-up. He ordered his general to put the husband on the front lines, knowing full well that this would get the man killed. And that’s what happened.
David’s plan appeared to have worked. He took the woman to be his wife. And she gave birth to a son.
The Power of Story
Enter the prophet, Nathan.
While David thought he had gotten away with the affair and the murder conspiracy to cover it up, God took notice. He had a message for David—words of conviction and condemnation—and Nathan was to be the messenger.
His mission: Get the king to admit and renounce his egregious behavior.
Now, put yourself in Nathan’s position. How would you approach this “mission”?
How would you get the king’s attention to even listen to you, let alone keep him from getting defensive and lashing out at you? How would you give a “hard message” so that you could still preserve that relationship—and your life?
Nathan came up with the perfect strategy: Tell a story.
Here’s what happened. The prophet entered the king’s chambers, and instead of launching into the meeting by proclaiming God’s message, he told a story about two men—a rich man and poor man—that goes something like this.
There was a poor man who owned only one lamb that he and his family had come to love. It was precious and valuable, “like a daughter to him,” as the Biblical account describes.
But then a rich man who, despite already owning an abundance of cattle, decided to take that one lamb away from the poor man to have it killed and prepared for a meal for his guest.
At this point in the story, David interrupts Nathan.
The Bible describes the scene like this: "David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, 'As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over because he did such a thing and had no pity.’"
Nathan didn’t skip a beat.
He said to David, “You are that man!”
Now that he had the king’s attention, the prophet proceeded to deliver God’s full message about the calamity that would come to his family as a result of his behavior.
David’s response: “I have sinned against the Lord.”
And then Nathan continued with God’s message, but, this time, it was one about hope and redemption for David because the king had changed.
Why did this story work?
The story got the King to suspend his judgment and to listen in a way where he could empathize with the poor man and feel righteous indignation towards the villain—the rich man.
And then at the precise moment that David’s anger towards the rich man was at its highest level, Nathan turned the tables, pointing to David, saying that the king himself was that “rich man.”
You can imagine David feeling stunned. “Wait…What?”
That’s why the story worked—it grabbed David’s attention.
At that point, Nathan was able to deliver the message that went something like this: "God has called you as a man after his own heart, and yet you have acted in a way that disobeys his law and hurts his people. As a result, you and your family will face hard times.'
David finally realized, in a heartfelt way, what he had done and admitted that he was wrong.
What lesson can we, as entrepreneurs, take away from “The Prophet and the King” story?
A story can be a powerful tool to influence and change behavior, which is especially useful when we need to get hard messages across to people, whether employees, investors, vendors, or customers.
And sometimes those people will hold power over us—like a highly profitable client who may be acting verbally abusive toward your employees or asking you to do something unethical. But we still need to confront that person about their behavior.
With the right story, we can engage in those challenging discussions in a way that gives us the best chance to achieve the behavioral change we’re looking for and preserve the relationship.
Sean M. Lyden is CEO of Lyden Communications LLC, a Strategy and Storytelling consultancy that helps entrepreneurs tap into the power of story to grow their business.
The Next Step
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