Tips for Difficult Conversations

Tips for Difficult Conversations

by Dr. Katie daCruz, PhD

Everyone has had the experience of needing to have difficult conversations. The conversation may be difficult because the outcome isn’t predictable, because we anticipate a negative reaction, or we are scared about the outcome. We may try to avoid this conversation because it makes us feel nervous or stressed. However, avoiding the conversation means the situation stays the same. It could even lead to the very outcome we are trying to avoid by avoiding the conversation. Also, the more we avoid the conversation the more upset and resentful we can become by what we are not speaking about. On the other hand, if you approach the conversation in a productive way it can help the other person better understand your feelings and could improve the situation or relationship. Below are some communication strategies that can often help to achieve a more positive outcome.

1. Focus on what you would like to see happen. Rather than going into the conversation only to complain or let out negative feelings, it will likely be helpful if you know what your goal is for the future with this person. If there are changes you would like to see, describe those changes. For example, instead of complaining about your partner working too much, you might say “Lately I have been missing you and I’m hoping we can find some more time to spend together this month.” The latter is much less likely to make someone else feel defensive and focuses on what you do want to see happen after the conversation. 

3. Share your feelings without blaming. It’s important to share how you feel and to focus on your feelings. Start by explaining how you feel, and what you think and why. But consider if the way you plan to talk about your feelings would make the other person feel attacked. If they feel defensive or attacked, they will be less likely to listen to you. Statements that start with “you” sound accusatory and blaming. Sentences that start with “I” are less inflammatory and they keep responsibility for what is expressed with the person doing the speaking. It’s also helpful to be careful not to suggest that the other person is to blame for your feelings or wanted to make you feel this way. Instead, send the message that your feelings are an unintended consequence and you’d like to work together to figure out how to avoid them in the future. 

4. Remember that everyone contributes to an interpersonal problem in some way. In other words, if there has been a conflict you may need to acknowledge your own role in the conflict you want to talk about. This is especially important if taking responsibility is what you are asking the other person to do.

5. Don’t forget to listen. When you start a difficult conversation, be aware that it might go in unexpected directions. If this happens, slow down and try to take in their point of view or new information. If you don’t feel like you understand their perspective, try asking them questions like: ‘Tell me more about that’, ‘can you help me understand better about…?’ or ‘How does that make you feel?’ When you feel you understand, try to say it back to them in their own words to acknowledge their feelings and perspectives. Remember, listening to another person’s story or feelings doesn’t mean you have to give up your own. The way you each see things matters, and the way you each feel matters. For example, you can feel angry and wronged and they can feel frustrated and judged.

6. Take a break if it would be helpful.

Sometimes you can do everything you can to have a constructive chat, but it can feel like it’s going nowhere. Either you or the other person may be too upset or emotional to continue talking in a productive way. It’s okay to take a break and come back to the conversation later. Use this time to relax and re-group.

Katie is a G3 Limited License Psychologist & Contributing Writer.

If you’d like support with a particular difficult conversation or improving a relationship where difficult conversations often happen, consider working with a therapist. Contact us at (734) 323-4897 or for more information.