How To Have A Difficult Conversation

No one enjoys the prospect of broaching a difficult topic with a relative, friend or colleague. It strikes anxiety into the most stalwart heart. But, there are times when it’s necessary if the relationship is to have a future.

Here are a few tools to help structure a difficult conversation. I recommend sharing them with the other person before embarking on your talk, just to make sure you can agree on some respectful ways to proceed.

Start with your intention to create an opportunity to truly listen to each other and move forward.

Agree to taking an Adult Time Out for 20 minutes, if either of you gets triggered and starts to feel tense or closed off. It takes your nervous system about that long to go back to its parasympathetic state from being triggered. Think of being triggered like a chemical flood. Everything rushes in furiously but it can take some time to mop up.

Before you meet each of you can take time to ask yourself: 

What’s my desired outcome?

Make it as concrete and behavioral as possible. Example:

“I want him to respect me.” That’s may be your ultimate goal, but it’s vague and a bit generalized. You want a way to gauge whether you are getting the respect you seek.

How would you know he respected you? How would his behavior change? Would he act appreciative? Would he be more considerate? Think of specific ways appreciation and consideration could be shown. Pick one or two and share them with the other person.

The clearer your expectations are and the more clearly you can convey them to the other person, the better it is.

Set an agenda with no more than three items.

Each of you can decide separately on 1-3 of the most important things you want to accomplish in your conversation.

Out of your combined list, pick one or two you can agree are most important now and stick to those. If you veer off into other issues your talk is likely to get emotional and less productive.

Approach the conversation with curiosity and open heartedness.

Go very slowly.

There is often a tendency with difficult material to want to rush through it, state your case, and unload all your grievances. As hard as it is to resist these urges, it will ultimately help if you exert some self control. That doesn’t mean repressing things that bother you, but it’s unrealistic to think you can resolve a host of issues in one conversation.

Listen carefully and use the following mirroring technique, reflecting back what you thought was said with its emotional subtext, to make sure you heard correctly.

Listen without interrupting. Repeat what you heard the person say in your own words showing you understood them. If possible, add the emotional feeling you heard underneath what they were saying.

Here’s an example:

Your partner says, “I feel hurt when you talk down to me.”

You say: “It sounds as if you feel I condescend to you and that hurts your feelings.”

If they say no, ask them to clarify so you can really understand.

If they say yes, ask if they would be willing to point out when you do that in the moment so you could be more aware and stop.

This may seem awkward at first, but it becomes quite natural with practice.

No one relishes having a difficult conversation, but if it goes well, the effort is worth it. Not only have you each been heard and respected, you can move forward with knowing you are both capable of creating a more caring, understanding, and flexible relationship.

Copyright Nicole Urdang

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Nicole Urdang

Nicole S. Urdang, M.S., NCC, DHM is a Holistic Psychotherapist in Buffalo, NY. She holds a New York state license in mental health counseling and a doctorate in homeopathic medicine from the British Institute of Homeopathy.