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How to Start a Difficult Conversation

Couple walking during sunset having an argument.

Starting a difficult conversation is never easy, but is possible with the right tools. Timing, tone, and phrasing are key components to have a fruitful discussion. In today's blog, author Alisa Grace outlines 7 communication tools that you can use to have a successful, healthy dialogue with your partner or loved one.

Have you ever been in a situation where someone said something hurtful or did something that angered you, but you just didn’t know how to tell them? Perhaps you were afraid you would hurt their feelings if you spoke up. Maybe you were afraid you’d lose your temper and blow up at them. Maybe you worried that they would somehow turn it around and make it seem like your fault. As a real “people-pleaser,” I find myself there more often than I’d like to admit - and I’m a communication professional!!

But I also know that a vital aspect of any healthy relationship is being able to talk about the things that upset each of you without fear of the other person becoming defensive or overly hurt. And like me, by using the following key steps, you can be on your way to creating an emotionally safe climate in which you both feel safe enough to share and hear the negative stuff, and actually end up with a stronger, healthier, more intimate relationship.  

1.     Pick the right time:

  • Not in the heat of the moment. Wait for a time when you’re not emotionally worked up about the issue.
  • Not as you’re walking in or out the door. Find a quiet, peaceful time when you won’t be rushed or interrupted, like after dinner when kids are in bed or on the weekend when you have a little more freetime.
  • Not when you’re tired. Don’t wait until right before bed or as you’re just getting off of work. Pick a time when you’re both as well rested as you can be. (I know this is a tough one for you parents!)  
  • Not when the other person is in the middle of something, like their favorite Netflix program or writing the teacher an email. Wait until they are done and can give you their full attention.
  • Ask, “Is this a good time to talk?”

Sounds like: “Honey, I really need your help with something.  Is now a good time to talk? If not, when would be a good time?”

2.     Start with saying something positive about the person first:

Sounds like: “You’re a really thoughtful person. I appreciate that you put your dirty dishes in the sink instead of leaving them on the counter.  You know that’s important to me, and I appreciate your extra effort to do that.”

3.     State a valid complaint using “I” statements. Describe the situation and how it makes you feel.  Introduce it with the phrase: “It feels like…,” or “It seems like…” which will help prevent your partner from feeling attacked or defensive.

Sounds like: “There’s something I need your help with.  When I come home after working all day and find the sink full of dirty dishes, it feels like you expect me to clean up after you and that feels unfair to me. I know you don’t literally think that, but that’s just how it makes me feel.”

  • Avoid criticizing your partner’s character:
    • You’re so lazy.
    • You live like a pig.
    • You only think about yourself.
  • Avoid using “You always” or You never” statements:
    • You always make such a mess and never clean up after yourself.
    • I always have to clean up your mess.

4.     State the positive action you desire and how it would make you feel:

Sounds like: “Would you mind rinsing your dishes off and putting them in the dishwasher?  I know it’s not that big of a deal, but it would feel like a huge help to me.”

  • Avoid phrasing it in a negative action:
    • Will you stop leaving your dirty dishes in the sink?
    • “Can you not…”

5.     Finish the conversation by thanking them for listening to what you needed to share.

Sounds like:  “Thank you for listening and letting me share with you when something is bothering me.  I really appreciate that you give me the freedom and security to do that.”

6.     Express appreciation when they follow through!  Catch them doing it right and acknowledge their effort – even if it’s not quite the way you wanted it done. People who feel appreciated are much more likely to repeat the positive action!

Sounds like: “I’ve noticed you’ve really been making the effort to put your dishes in the dishwasher lately. Thank you so much! I know it may sound silly, but it really makes me feel important to you and loved by you when you do that. Thank you!” (A big hug and kiss at this point wouldn’t be a horrible idea.)

7.     Give your partner grace when they forget or mess up.  Welcome to life! We all mess up, we all make mistakes and wouldn’t want it thrown in our faces. So be willing to overlook it when it happens now and then.

However, if their forgetting becomes a pattern again, then go back and repeat steps 1-6.

The great thing about this healthy communication strategy is that it is completely transferrable, meaning you can also use it with your kids, your friends, your roommates, and your co-workers, too (although I suggest leaving out the hug and kiss with your roommates and co-workers…). It’s simply a technique to create an emotionally safe environment to have a difficult, yet honest conversation.  

In my next blog, we’ll put the shoe on the other foot. I’ll give you some key strategies for handling the conversation when someone tells you that you’ve hurt or upset them.