Be honest – how does the expression “we need to talk” make you feel? Stomach turn a little? Don’t worry, beautiful pacifist, you are not alone!
For many, any kind of conflict or confrontation (ugh, those very words might make you shudder), no matter how mild, is a big “no, thank you.” It feels scary, threatening, and a bit aggressive. Surely no good could possibly come from it, right?
But, unless you’ve reached an enlightened state and manage to let go of everything all the time, some kind of conflict as we move through life is inevitable. Whether it’s with a boss, employee, sibling, parent, friend, neighbour, or stranger, people’s values often don’t align with your own.
Or, we need to call someone out on bad behaviour or a misunderstanding.
Or, admit it, unresolved issues have been left to ferment, and that shit is only good in a sourdough, not in your soul.
What makes a conversation “difficult”? Emotion. Think about it – the conversations you’d instead run a mile from are not tricky because they’re intellectually challenging or full of logical conundrums; they’re fraught with emotion. It’s hard to think clearly when strong emotions are swirling around, even more so if that’s happening on both sides. Let’s try to pinpoint the feeling you’re running from.
First: What are you afraid of?
There are endless reasons to avoid difficult conversations. Try first to figure out exactly where your fear is coming from.
- Are you afraid it will make things worse?
- Are you afraid your feelings will be dismissed or ignored?
- Did you try in the past, and it didn’t work?
- Are you overwhelmed because the issue is made up of many moments of hurt or misunderstanding, and you can’t pinpoint which one to address?
- Or are you still holding on to so much frustration or anger that you don’t feel able to broach the issue?
One or all of these things might be true. But, if you’re reading this, it’s probably because, deep down, you don’t want to be carrying this emotional load anymore. There’s perhaps something you would love to just lay down at someone else’s feet, right out there in the open, and be free of it. You know avoiding it doesn’t help and usually makes the monster bigger and harder to get rid of.
So rather than trying to ignore or fight through the emotions, accept and name them. Being emotional is human, but if you can stay in control of the emotion rather than let it take over, you’re off to a really good start.
- Instead of “I know I shouldn’t still be feeling angry about this,” try, “I can’t seem to let go of my anger about this. I think this is why…”
- Instead of “sorry for crying but…”, try “I’m crying because I’ve been feeling really sad about this for a long time…”
Work on yourself first (then work on the other person).
Before you broach any challenging subject, be clear with yourself about how you feel and what you want. Seriously.
Take a piece of paper (you can burn it afterward) and write one clear sentence for each:
- I feel………………………………………………………
- I want……………………………………………………
What would be a celebratory baby step, or the minimum you’d like to accomplish, and what would be the ideal outcome? Accept that you’ll probably land somewhere in the middle.
Often, great communication, healing, and growth can come when we give up the need to be right. Finding a solution to what’s not sitting right with you may be about just being heard or finding a compromise that feels fair. Planning this way means it’s less likely that nerves and emotions will get the better of you.
Remember: Impact does not equal intent.
Often, we’re missing information. We make assumptions about what the other person is thinking or the reasons for their actions. Be honest about the assumptions you’re making, then be open to the possibility that these are stories you’ve created. Similarly, own your emotions but be aware of your buttons and your personal history that’s triggered. It’s absolutely ok to feel hurt by something, but it’s often not true that the person meant to hurt you. Remember, impact doesn’t always equal intent.
Start by explaining how you feel. Describe precisely what you want. An apology? An explanation? A promotion? Just for them to listen?
Take a conversation break if you need it. If it all gets a bit overwhelming, or it feels like the discussion isn’t going in the right direction, ask, “can we take a break?”
Or, if you want to be more subtle about it, “do you mind if I go and make a coffee,” “I’m going to just take a bathroom break, I’ll call you back,” or “thanks for the reply. Give me a couple of days to get my thoughts in order, and I’ll write to you soon.”
Agree to disagree. Sometimes we just want to be heard or to get something off our chest, not to win an argument or convince the other person of our specific point of view. Realize that they just need to say their piece too and not necessarily solve the problem right away.
- “I’ve been feeling…….” “I have a sense that maybe you……is that right?” (Always aim for ‘I’ statements rather than “you always/you make me feel/you never…”)
- I’m not asking you to fix this, just to listen to how I feel right now.
- Ask, “what’s your perspective on this?” or “how do you feel about all this?”
- “It’s ok if you don’t agree with me/see it my way; I just wanted to explain where I’m coming from” or “I just needed you to hear my side of the story.”
Begin with and celebrate the baby steps.
Communication like this gets easier each time. It’s like a muscle. Start with small things. If you’re allergic to conflict, start by telling your partner it bothers you that they never remember to take the garbage out. Or say to a neighbour, “oops, you forgot to pick up after the dog!” rather than jumping straight into asking your friend why they never call anymore.
If there’s a longstanding issue to tackle, like a decades-old family disagreement, it might help to take one tiny piece of it. Instead of, “why am I always left out of everything?” start with a gentle, “hey, I would have loved to know you guys were all doing that last week.”
And once the conversation gets going, remember one thing at a time. There may be lots of issues to discuss, but pick what’s really bothering you or that you suspect is bothering them, and really try to keep your focus on that thing.
Once the air is clear on that, you can judge whether to tackle something else or save it for another time. If they try to bring unrelated issues to the conversation, keep cool and suggest tackling one thing at a time.
- “Hey, I know there’s a lot to talk about, but I was hoping to get your thoughts on this one thing…”
- “I know that feels like part of the problem for you, but could we stay with the first thing and tackle that one next?”
Practical preparation creates a greater chance for success.
Choose the right time to talk. Whether you’re asking for a raise at work, need more attention from a romantic partner, or need to unload some emotional family baggage, timing is key. Sure, the person you’re talking to may get defensive or dismissive when you broach specific topics. Still, you can up the odds of them hearing you out if neither one of you is stressed, worried, tired, or hungry.
Start positive. Try to find something good to place at the beginning of the conversation. People can feel a little sideswiped if you open with “I’m upset, you never have time for me.” If you can find a ‘soft opener’ like “I’m really glad we have a few minutes to talk, something’s been weighing on my mind,” they’re eased gently into a meaningful conversation.
Say what you need to say, being honest about how you might have contributed to the problem or situation – and then listen. This is the hard part. You’ve obviously brought this up (or maybe you were dragged into a difficult conversation) because there’s emotion involved, probably on both sides. Try to leave space for the response, even if it’s not what you hoped to hear.
Try to find agreement on something, then see if understanding and, if necessary, compromise can happen. You may both be coming from very different viewpoints.
Asking questions like, “what can we agree on here?” and “is there anything here that we see the same way” can be a beneficial building block. “Ok, we agree that we were really good friends and that that’s not the case anymore. It’s ok if we don’t agree on why that is because we agree that we want to get that connection back somehow.”
Now, you can move the conversation in a positive direction and talk about the next steps.
Use tech if you need it.
Conversations don’t have to be spoken. It can be really, really hard to say to someone in person or to phone them up and say, “We need to talk.” Even the example on repairing a friendship from above might seem awkward to say out loud. But in an email or a text, it could work better. You have time to really think about what you want to say (always good to write a draft and come back to it the next day before sending), and you can take your time processing whatever response you get back.
Just be wary of tone and things like emojis and exclamation points. “I miss you!!” feels very different from “I miss you…”
One final note, don’t prep like you’re going to battle.
Check your attitude on the way into the conversation. Suppose you feel deep in your gut that it’s going to be terrible and combative. In that case, you’re not going to get very far. Still, if you can convince yourself that whatever happens, some good will come from getting things out in the open, then you’re more likely to succeed.
Mindfully reframe it as a “brave conversation” instead of a difficult one. Rather than “I need to blame you for something,” more “we need to find a solution to something together.”
Stay in charge of your emotions, your purpose and your energy. Breathe deeply and shake out those shoulders – this is not war, it’s resolution…!
And at the end of the day, trust you did your best practicing these strategies. If it still hasn’t worked out, at least you can move forward knowing you spoke your truth; the other person either isn’t ready to hear it, or the problem doesn’t yet have a solution.
It may not be the ideal result, but you can rest a bit easier, knowing the issue is no longer buried inside you, and a tiny seed was planted that may bear fruit far into the future.
Here are a few tools where you can dive in and learn even more:
- Book: How to have that difficult conversation by Dr. Henry Cloud
- Video: Mel Robbins on Difficult Conversations
- Article: Great write up in Forbes magazine
- Podcast: Kristine Carlson on tough conversations