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!

Reply
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.

Reply
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 .

Reply
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.

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?

Reply
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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One of our rituals was in the week before Christmas, we’d go shopping and each kiddo would choose a keepsake decoration for the tree. This would forever be their decoration. To make sure we’d remember who owned what (a year is a long time!) I wrote their name and year on the box. The idea is that when they leave home, they’ll have a collection of special decorations for their own tree, plump with throwbacks (‘Oh I remember when we bought this!).

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We often put so much pressure on ourselves to make Christmas magical. Rituals can make this easier. They get the special memories, you get to make the ‘magic’ without having to come up with something new and different each year.

It’s very likely that there will already be Christmas rituals happening in your family, even if you don’t realise it. Ask them what they remember most, or what they loved most about last Christmas, aside from the presents.

They might surprise you with things you’d completely forgotten about, or which at the time didn’t seem to be a biggie. It can be the simplest things. Maybe they loved the way they were allowed to have ice-cream with pancakes at breakfast last Christmas. (Ice-cream at breakfast?! Told you Christmas was magical!!). 

If it’s what they remember, and if it lights them up, let it become a ‘thing’. Maybe they loved the magic ‘neverending carrot’ sprinkles you put on the scrawny carrot you found in the vege drawer (remembering reindeer groceries can be so hard sometimes!)

You’d be surprised what they find special. It doesn’t have to be big to feel magical.

What are your Christmas rituals? Let’s share ideas in the comments.♥️
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It can feel as though the only way to strengthen them against their anxiety is to make sure they have nothing to worry about, but when their worries are real this might not happen quickly. 

Instead, we need to focus on helping them know that even though those worries are there, they will be okay. ‘Not worrying’ isn’t the antidote to anxiety, trust is. This will start with trust in you and your belief that they will be okay, and trust in your reaction if things don’t go to plan. Eventually, as they grow this will expand into trust in themselves and their own capacity to find their way through challenges to a place of hope and strength. 
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Strong steady breathing will reverse the fight or flight physiology that causes nausea, butterflies, or sick or sore tummies during anxiety. BUT telling an anxious brain to take a strong steady breath will potentially make anxiety worse unless strong steady breathing feels familiar. Practising during calm times will make it familiar. 

During anxiety we’re dealing with their amygdala, and it wants short shallow breathing to conserve oxygen. It doesn’t want strong steady breathing and will work hard to resist this. 

An anxious brain is a busy brain and it will be less able to do anything unfamiliar. A few minutes of strong steady breathing each day will set up a strong neural pathway to make strong breathing more automatic and accessible during anxiety. 

In the meantime though, you can do it for them. This is the magic of co-regulation. When you do strong steady breathing during their anxiety, it will calm your nervous system which will eventually calm theirs. You will catch their anxiety, and this will feed into their anxiety. Your strong steady breathing is the circuit breaker. They will catch your anxiety, but they will also catch your calm. Don’t worry if this takes a few minutes (and maybe a few more after that). Anxious brains are strong, powerful, beautiful brains working hard to protect. Breathe and be with. This will open the way for that distressed young nervous system to find its way home. And you don’t need to do more than that.♥️
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Needs and behaviour can get tangled up and treated as one. When you can, separate the need from the behaviour. Give voice to the need - let it find a way to breathe - and redirect the behaviour. 

The need might always be clear, especially if it’s being smothered by angry shouting words. If we stifle the behaviour without acknowledging the need, the need stays hungry. Help usher it into the light by making it clear that you’re ready to receive it. Then wait. Wait for the big behaviour to ease, for bodies to calm, and angry voices to soften - but keep the way to you open. ‘You’re a great kid and I know you know that behaviour wasn’t okay. Talk to me about what’s happening for you.’

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