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7 Tips for Getting Through Difficult Conversations

Use these strategies to make difficult talks more open and productive.

Key points

  • All relationship conflicts are caused by interaction effects, not by one person or the other.
  • During a Big Talk, be sure to communicate purposefully; offer solutions and don't blame.
  • Listening is the most important strategy in difficult conversations, so use empathy and consider the other person's perspective.
Source: leungchopan/Shutterstock

Have you ever felt anxious about an upcoming talk — one whose outcome you can’t predict? One that makes you feel edgy or jittery all day, unable to focus on other things? Maybe you were planning to talk through something difficult with someone important — perhaps the status of your relationship, your reaction to a betrayal, or your apology for breaking a promise. You have to tell a parent that you won’t be able to visit when they want you to. You need to ask your partner to change the way they’ve been treating you. Or maybe it’s much more mundane: Your child got into a fight at school and you need to talk to them, to help them understand what went wrong.

No matter what the purpose of the upcoming Big Talk, some things don’t change, and some communication strategies can almost always help. Here are seven basic ideas, elaborated where possible, about how to keep your difficult conversations open, clear, directed, and productive.

1. Have a goal in mind.

Try to identify what you’re hoping to achieve before you begin. Perhaps you’d like to ask your spouse to stop teasing you in social situations. Or maybe you intend to ask your boss to back off a bit, to stop intruding into your private life.

Be clear and specific in your own mind about what you want to accomplish; don’t just go into the conversation with a vague negative feeling and an intention to let it out. And when you begin to talk, don’t just complain about the problem you’ve noticed: suggest solutions, too.

2. Use a non-blaming communication style.

A great template for this type of phrasing would be: “When you do X, I feel Y.” In other words, simply explain to the other person that your feelings follow their actions — not that they are deliberately “causing” you to feel low, or that they are “making you feel” some particular way.

Present your feelings as an unintended consequence that you’d like to avoid, and ask for their help in avoiding it. To do this, you may need to take note of your own feelings before you have the conversation. Try to detect any antagonism, or any eagerness to defend yourself; be aware of feeling angry at the other person. Before you meet, work out some ways to express these feelings in a neutral, non-blaming manner.

3. Recognize that complex, interpersonal problems have complex, interpersonal causes.

In other words, you'll need to acknowledge your own responsibility for some part of the conflict you want to talk about — especially if this is what you are asking the other person to do.

Be clear about the fact that such issues are never exclusively the fault of one person or the other. Recognize that the conflict was caused by an interaction between the two of you, and thus is due at least in part to your own errors in judgment. So don’t insult, don’t provoke, and don’t accuse. Be open about the problem, but do so without blaming the other person for it.

4. Accept criticism if it’s on-topic.

Acknowledge your mistakes. Before you go into the talk, make a mental list of things you’re prepared to own up to. (Don’t limit yourself to the ones you can find, yourself; there may be some you haven’t noticed.) If you want to work out a problem, don’t assume that the other person is the only one who needs to change.

However, don't be redirected into an examination of your own faults either; keep the conversation focused on the issue you brought up in the first place. Listen to the other person when they criticize you and tell them you will be happy to talk about that later after you’ve sorted out the original issue.

5. Phrase requests toward the positive.

Describe the changes you’d like to make, rather than simply complaining about the problem you've noticed. You’ll be saying essentially the same thing, but in a way that goes down much more easily. “Our relationship is terrible these days,” contains effectively the same information as “I want it to be easier for us to spend time together,” but the latter is much less likely to make someone else feel defensive.

Another way to understand this point is to recognize that you are not the only one who will benefit from the changes you’re requesting or the solutions you’ve suggested. Try to think through and explain to the other person why that might be true.

6. Don’t feel the need for total victory.

Sometimes you don’t need the other person to agree with you. You may only need to get your opinion out there in a neutral, well-reasoned way, so that they can hear you say it and can consider it later, in the fullness of time — even if they’re defensive when you first bring it up. After all, if the other person becomes upset or takes your critiques personally, perhaps their reaction proves your point. (The opposite is also true: if you are criticized in a way that makes you angry, your hurt feelings might mean the remark has some truth to it.) So don’t expect an immediate behavior change or a full admission of guilt. You may have to accept being “less right” than you think you are.

7. Don’t forget to listen.

This might be the most important communication strategy on this list. When you open up a difficult conversation, be aware that it might go in unexpected directions. Be sure to take some time out from trying to make your points so that you can really hear and understand what the other person is saying, from their perspective. Use empathy, slow down, and try to take their point of view. Catch yourself before you react defensively to anything you hear.

Facebook image: leungchopan/Shutterstock

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