Introduction by Deborah Meyrowitz-Weiss, M.Ed., LMFT
Deborah is member of the Collaborative Law Professionals of Southeastern PA, often provides mental health services, divorce coaching, and family counseling to our clients in Bucks County, Montgomery County, Delaware County, Chester County, and Philadelphia. She helps her clients learn effective communications skills so they are better prepared to handle difficult conversations.
Read more about how to avoid misunderstandings and manage conflict in Part I of ” How to Have a Difficult Talk,” posted on Hey Sigmund.
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 fire-starters:
‘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 defense, (‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Young, Karen. (2016, June 8). How to have a Difficult Talk. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.heysigmund.com/how-to-have-a-difficult-talk/
Check back on May 27, 2019 to read How to Have a Difficult Talk: Part II.