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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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