Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

How to Have a Difficult Talk

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How to Have a Difficult Talk

In any relationship, whether it’s with a work colleague, friend, partner, parent, sibling, there will often come a time where a hard conversation has to happen. They’re the conversations that need to be handled gently. The anticipation of them can easily have you imagining your relationship gasping for breath in that cold wasteland fed by misunderstandings, too much honesty, not enough honesty, and drunk texting. 

There will always be people who don’t deserve the gentle handling – the ones who cause more pain than joy. If a difficult conversation comes with a very real risk that they will get up and leave your life, let’s call that a reward for your honesty and be done with it. Glorious. 

When there is a need for a difficult conversation with someone you care about, the stakes are higher. You’ve probably been hoping that it will sort itself out (it hasn’t), waited to see if anyone else raises the issue (nope – nobody has), or worked hard to convince yourself that you’re just making a fuss about nothing (you’re not). 

If you care about the relationship and the person, there are a few things you can do to make it more likely that the relationship doesn’t bruise under the weight of a difficult conversation. Here are some things to keep in mind.

The ‘Innocent’ Way to Inflammation.

Sometimes what you don’t do, will be as important as what you do. Well-intended words don’t always land gently. In fact, there are some that can be almost guaranteed to explode on impact. Try to avoid these little firestarters:

  • ‘I’m just being honest.’ ‘I don’t want to upset you.’ ‘I don’t want you to take this the wrong way.’
  • When these gems make their way into a conversation, the missile is effectively launched. At this point, you could throw confetti or tiny toy pandas in cowboy suits, it wouldn’t make the blow any lighter. A tough conversation is tough because it’s tough. It won’t soften things to give a warning that the grenade is coming (‘I don’t want you to take this the wrong way but …’), to use ‘honesty’ as a defence, (‘You’re a mess. I’m just being honest.’), or asking that the person not be upset by something that will upset them (‘I don’t want to upset you but …’). 

  • … but … 

    Here’s another one that will show itself like a daisy and land like concrete. There will be plenty of times that ‘but’ will make it into a conversation and you’ll never even know it’s been there. Other times though! When it’s used to soften the blow, it often won’t. What it tends to mean in these situations is, ‘forget the first part of this sentence, because now I’m going to tell you how I really feel.’ Anything after the ‘but’ will speak louder. Instead, try replacing ‘but’ with ‘and’, as in, ‘I want us to be happy and I need some space.’ The difference is subtle, but it can make the difference between the other person hearing the positive and the ‘negative’ in the sentence, or just the negative. 

How to have a difficult talk. The little things that make a big difference.

  1. I, the other, the issue.

    There are three parts to an interaction – I, the other and the issue. Conversations run off track when people focus on ‘I’ and the issue, without paying attention to the other. For the best resolution, you need the other – their wisdom, their view, their engagement and their commitment to making things better. The more aware you are of the other person – their words, the expressions, the feelings behind the words – the easier you will be able to manage the conversation by noticing your impact and responding to misunderstandings, confusion or disconnection. You can’t control the outcome, but you can control the process. 

  2. Can’t find the right moment?

    One of the hardest things about tough conversations is knowing when to bring them up. If you’re not sure when the right moment is going to be, let the other person decide. Try, ‘I was wondering if we could talk when you have a moment.’ If your conversation is not expected, curiosity will generally win out, with the other person either asking straight away what’s up, or coming back to you and initiating the conversation as soon as they are able. Be careful though, leaving it to the other person to find the opportunity can backfire if he or she suspects something tough is coming and the best way to deal with it is, well, not to.

  3. What’s in it for both of you?

    What’s in it for the other person if they stay with you through the conversation and come around to your way of thinking? Will it make things better for both of you? Will it make it easier for you to give them what they need? Thinking of the positives for the other person can be difficult, particularly if you’re hurting or upset about something that’s been said or done. The more you can make things safe and easy for the other person, the more likely you are to get what you need. Even better if you can both get what you need. 

  4. When you push, they push. But when you yield …

    The more you push against someone, the more likely they will respond by pushing back. It’s the instinctive way to retain balance when unexpected vulnerability feels as though it will cause a toppling. The more you say, ‘you don’t …’, the more they’ll say, ‘but I do.’ The more you say, ‘you are …’, the more they’ll say, ‘but I’m not.’ When you yield a little, it reduces the need to push back and opens up the potential to be heard. Yielding in this sense doesn’t mean agreeing. It means being prepared to listen, to be vulnerable and open to the other person’s reality.

  5. Contact before content.

    Nobody will care about what you want until they know that you care about them. Avoid coming in cold, annoyed or disconnected. There’s nothing wrong with feeling these things, but their effect on a situation tends to be a prickly one. Things will be more likely to go your way when you show you are invested in the person, not just the outcome.

  6. Stick with the facts.

    There is nothing wrong with saying how you feel, but be careful not to let your opinion muddy things. It’s one thing to say, ‘I feel sad that we don’t catch up as much as we used to. I miss you.’ It’s another to say, ‘I feel like ever since you started seeing Fabio, you’ve totally become his little groupie.’ When feelings come from a place of love and honesty, they will tend to bring people closer. Opinion, on the other hand, can drive distance between two people, particularly when your opinion involves a personal commentary. 

  7. ‘You always’ and ‘You never’ – just don’t.

    The problem with speaking in absolutes, as in ‘you always’ or ‘you never’, is that the person you are speaking with will immediately set to the task of proving you wrong. They only need one time they didn’t or one time they did as ‘proof’ that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Make the mistake of saying, ‘you’re always late’, and you’ll find yourself having to respond to the one time they were on time, and you were late. It won’t matter that the reason you were late – that one time – was because your often tardy (though hopefully loveable) friend gave you the wrong address.

  8. Listen – with an open heart and an open mind.

    When you hear enough of anyone’s story, their behaviour will often make sense. That doesn’t make the behaviour okay, but it might make it easier to understand and respond to. Try to learn as much as you can about the other person and how they see the situation. What do they see that you don’t? What do you need to know to make what they are doing make sense? Being heard is a beautiful thing to feel, for everyone. When people feel heard, defensiveness, anger, fear and disconnection will often soften, opening greater potential for you to be heard and to get what you need. 

  9. Validate them.

    However crazy things feel or sound from the other person, their story obviously isn’t crazy to them. Validate it. ‘I understand that it’s important for you to leave at five o’clock and I’m happy to cover for you when I’m able. I’m wondering if we can talk about a way that I’m also able to leave at five sometimes.’

  10. Use I.

    You don’t need to change anyone’s opinion, you just need to be understood. Using ‘I’ (as in, I am/I think/I feel), instead of ‘you’ (you are/you think you can …/you make me … ), lessens the need for a defensive response. ‘I don’t understand what you are saying’ is very different to, ‘you’re not making any sense.’

  11. Watch your unspoken energy.

    We all come into interactions with energy. You’ll feel it from other people too. When it’s someone you care about and know fairly well, it’s likely that you’ll often pick up on how they’re feeling before they’ve uttered a word. They will do the same with you. That’s because words are only one part of the message that we communicate, and often a very small part. Be careful not to close yourself off – it can easily be felt as resistance or hostility – even if your words say otherwise. Aim for synchronicity and let your body, your voice, your tone all match your words. ‘I want to understand’ will feel different depending on whether it’s supported with a presence that is open or closed (e.g. arms crossed, slightly turned away).

  12. Don’t assume the other person knows what you need.

    One of the biggest mistakes we make in any sort of relationships is assuming that the other person knows more than they do. It might be obvious to us that someone who always cancels plans at the last minute will stretch patience, but the other person might not see their on-time presence as that important to you. Gently open up their knowledge about what matters to you, and let them do the same for you in relation to them.

  13. Make a commitment.

    What happens next? Be clear about where things are going to go from here, otherwise there will be the potential for things to explode again.

Part of being human means that we all have it in us to hurt the ones we love. We also have it in us to be hurt by them. Relationships aren’t about perfection – they are about realness and feelings and messiness. Issues in a relationship aren’t necessarily a sign of the fragility of the relationship. They are a sign of the human-ness of the people in it. The more we can own that human-ness and the potential for messiness, misunderstandings, and disappointments that is in all of us, the more we can flourish, independently of others and together with them.

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9 Comments

Sue F

This is great Karen. A “friend” started a conversation with me recently “You know I love you but…” so I knew it was downhill from that moment. Once those words are out there’s no going back.

Reply
tracy

Nice One! I and my boyfriend had issues & after some days he sent me a text *I miss u* was confused. What do u think?

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susan

hi, I just want to seek an advice for what would be the best text message I should send since my boyfriend is quite ignoring all my text messages. ..and I’m planning also to visit him in his work place, so what would be the best approach to him? thanks and more power.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Susan if your boyfriend is ignoring your text messages, I’m not sure that visiting him in his place of work is a good idea. It could potentially put him in a difficult position and probably wouldn’t do anything to help your relationship. The response would depend on whatever has lead up to him ignoring you. Does he need space? Is he trying to leave the relationship? Is he looking for control? Is his request for space reasonable? Unreasonable? Let these guide your response, but be mindful that the more you chase him, quite possibly the more he will be pull away.

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Maimuna

I liked da article. Thankle you. For some years I have been into a relationship wea i wasn’t comfortable. So i ended it. N then i loved anada person whom i think takes me as a normal person. M asking for a way to prove it n more ways to express my feelings .

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Pippa

SO good – SO hard to do and it takes practise in my experience – I spent two years (yep – sorry but true) putting off talking to a colleague about her behaviour towards me – until my coach gave me a kind of ultimatum that she wouldn’t see me again unless I had spoke to the person concerned..so I did and it all changed for the better from thereon. I’ve done some crazy things in my life but that was probably one of the bravest, I’m slightly ashamed to say. Onwards and upwards – and now more confidently that I have your website in my favourites list!

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Thanks Pippa! You’re so right – it can be so hard to speak to someone who has made your life difficult. I love that you took the step to have the difficult talk. No shame at all in calling it as one of the most difficult things you’ve done. It takes a ton of heart to be able to speak to someone who has been making your life difficult. Well done you!

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