It’s never fun. But when you know how to do it, it’s not so bad.
No one likes difficult conversations; I’ve been known to end relationships just to avoid having them. But sometimes, they’re unavoidable.
Maybe you screwed up and did something you regret, or maybe it’s the other person who’s hurt or offended you. Often, there’s an ongoing issue that causes conflict between two people and needs to be addressed.
How do you know if you’re due to have a difficult conversation with someone? Here’s one way to think about it: some problems are like colds, and some are like toothaches. A cold makes you feel miserable for a while, but you know it’ll go away on its own after a while. A toothache gets worse and worse, and will never get better on its own. Let it go, and that cavity will eventually turn into an abscess. What could have been fixed with a small filling now needs a root canal. Let it go long enough, and it could actually kill you.
If your issue with someone is of the toothache variety, you’re going to have to have a difficult conversation. Whether it’s your mother, your lover, or your best friend, here are six ways to make it a little easier…
1. Don’t say, ‘we need to talk’
A survey reported by the Daily Mail, which included responses from 1,000 men and women in relationships, found that for 80 per cent of men, saying ‘we need to talk’ was the absolute worst way to start a conversation. For these poor men, the very thought of sitting down to talk was enough to strike fear in their hearts – and it’s not hard to see why.
Saying you need to talk is likely to put your partner (or friend, or family member, or co-worker) on the defensive; they’ll immediately wonder what they’ve done wrong, and may even start plotting their counterattack. So find a way to start the conversation without announcing your intention beforehand – but don’t ambush them, either. Pick a time when you’re both calm and have some time, and ease into it.
2. Go in with an open mind
True communication, says author and Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, can only happen when we don’t have an agenda. But when we enter into a difficult conversation with someone, we often have more than just an agenda – we have an axe to grind. We’re angry, or hurt, or disappointed, or some combination of the three. We want the other person to see our point of view, admit they were wrong, or behave differently.
But going in with this kind of stubborn attitude usually results in conflict. “Could our minds and our hearts be big enough just to hang out in that space where we’re not entirely certain about who’s right and who’s wrong? Could we see, hear, feel other people as they really are?” asks Chödrön.
3. Choose your moment carefully
It’s tempting to put difficult conversations off until you’re in the heat of the moment. Who wants to rock the boat when things are peaceful? No, we’d rather wait until we’re in the thick of a conflict, and then drag up all our complaints about the other person and have it out. But this is a bad idea. It’s far better to find a time when you’re both well rested, you’re not starving (nothing goes well when your hangry), and you’re not distracted.
The Daily Mail survey pegged 8:15pm as the time when men are most receptive to a serious discussion with their partner, while most women prefer to bring thorny issues up at 8:20am. Talking while you’re out for a drive can be good; almost 40 per cent of men said they like to have meaningful conversations while driving. But when they’re playing video games or watching sports, steer clear: 92 per cent of men said they don’t want to talk during a game.
4. Watch your language
No matter what the conflict is, choosing your words carefully and paying attention to your tone can make the conversation go more smoothly .Avoid accusatory language (‘you always’ and ‘you never’ are guaranteed fight-starters) and don’t call names. Keep the focus on your needs and on how you feel, not on what you believe the other person has done, or not done. When in doubt, stop and take a breath, rather than going on and on and getting more and more heated. You don’t want to end up kicking yourself later for saying something you didn’t really mean, and being cruel will only make both of you feel terrible.
It’s important to be kind, even if – maybe especially if – you’re angry. “Kindness doesn’t mean that we don’t express our anger,” couples therapist Julie Gottman explains in The Atlantic, “but the kindness informs how we choose to express the anger. You can throw spears at your partner. Or you can explain why you’re hurt and angry, and that’s the kinder path.”
5. Look for the good
Having a difficult conversation is a sign that you care. After all, if you didn’t want to save the relationship, why would you bother talking about whatever the issue is? So look for common ground. Rather than thinking of a problem as the two of you against each other, reframe it as the two of you against the problem.
Remember that fighting isn’t necessarily a sign of a toxic relationship; it can be a sign that you care enough to work through conflicts. And in any relationship, there’s bound to be conflict. If you find yourself getting mired in negativity, unable to see things from your partner’s point of view or be kind, stop the conversation and take some time to cool down.
6. Revisit the conversation later
Don’t expect a big issue to be resolved in one conversation. In fact, leadership coach Rosalie Puiman tells the Huffington Post that it’s a good idea to revisit the conversation the next day anyway, no matter how you feel it went. She recommends asking how the other person is doing, and if anything new has come up. Nothing has to be set in stone.
“There’s no harm in going back and saying something like ‘I feel I didn’t get the chance to really explain my point of view. Do you have a minute to so I can explain it better?’ Of course that will probably lead to a reply, and thus to a new difficult conversation, but that’s not a problem anymore, right?”
The more practice you get having (and surviving!) difficult conversations, the more comfortable you’ll feel initiating them. And that’s something that can only improve all of your relationships.
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