How to Have a Difficult Talk

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.

10 Comments

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!

Reply
Colleen

no matter how I try to prepare for a difficult conversation with a friend, it blows up in my face. They usually, no matter how soft or calm I mention my feelings about something that is bothering me or hurting me, the other either says, ‘I know, I’m just a horrible person, wrong type of friend for you, lousy sister, and on and on” It’s happened with my daughter, my sister and a recent friend. Then they leave the relationship and say that’s best for me! So confused.

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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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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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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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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.

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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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