…You want to go on a yoga retreat in Bali for a week and you don’t know how to bring it up with your partner because you know they aren’t going to like the idea of it.
…You “heard a rumor” about a close friend (not a nice one) and you want to verify whether it’s true or not.
…That thing someone did was actually hurtful and you want to make sure they know you know, but more importantly, you want to try to find out what was behind their actions. Did they really betray you like that?
What’s the best way to have a difficult conversation?
Lots of us don’t!
For many people:
You avoid it. You sweep it under the rug. You file it. You try to forget it.
Maybe you say, “it’s no big deal…”
But you’re lying to yourself and you know it.
Problem is, you have no idea how to bring it up because you worry you might make things worse. You’re scared you’ll be adding fuel to the fire.
You’re so upset you don’t even know how to talk about it.
You are afraid you’ll be unclear or not represent yourself and your feelings accurately and it will cause even more misunderstanding.
Difficult conversations are hard in part because they are with people we care about.
If you didn’t care about the person you were having a difficult conversation with, the conversation wouldn’t be so difficult, right?
Here’s the truth though:
Difficult conversations are necessary for our growth.
Having the difficult conversation more often than not fosters deepened connections with each other.
Deepened connections yield safer bases and stronger foundations from which to explore the world and be our best selves.
Yet we’re afraid to have these difficult conversations because we’re afraid to lose whatever connection we may have.
What if the rumor is true?
What if your partner is truly untrustworthy?
What if they REALLY don’t care about you?
As I’m sure you know,
The Truth Will Set You Free
You can get to that truth if you know how to have a difficult conversation.
We often tell ourselves worst case scenario type stories and accept them as truth, when they are just erroneous self-protective defenses that only serve to keep us apart from one another in our own hellish lonely prisons.
More often than not, if you’re in a close relationship with someone, by having the difficult conversation and getting down to the truth of the matter, you will be liberated, feel closer, and have a stronger connection together.
What if the difficult conversation goes awry?
If, on the off chance during this difficult conversation, you find out that your partner or the person with whom you’re speaking really does not value you, your relationship, or themselves, and is untrustworthy or disrespectful as a result, you can thank the difficult conversation for helping to break the spell of the delusion.
Of course, one difficult conversation that goes awry doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t work things out — the real gifts will arrive after you continue to have the difficult conversations — but in extreme cases, facing these things head on will reveal truths that you may not like.
In these cases, it’s up to you about what you wish to do with these relationships. It might not always work out.
It may hurt in the short run, but in the long run, you only deserve people who value and respect you.
My advice is to have the difficult conversation and keep an open mind in the process
As mentioned earlier, lots of people in strained relationships don’t give their partners the benefit of the doubt.
They expect the worst.
The good news is that, in the words of Byron Katie, “Reality is always kinder than your thinking.”
You may likely be pleasantly surprised with how it goes.
How Do You Have A Difficult Conversation?
A few years ago I started sharing RelationTip Tuesday videos, and here is the first one I ever made on 4 Steps To Have A Difficult Conversation.
While I stand by what I said on this video, I’m going to go a little deeper and shift up the steps a little bit, because I think this revised version of “how to have a difficult conversation” might be more helpful.
Here are your 4 Steps To Have A Difficult Conversation (Revised 🙂 )
1. Know your INTENTION for the difficult conversation
What’s your intention for this conversation?
How do you want to feel after the conversation?
How do you want the other person to feel?
What’s the purpose of the conversation?
These are all important questions to ask so that you are clear about your intention for this conversation.
I would imagine that the purpose of the difficult conversation is to clarify something that happened, to understand each other, to rebuild or restore trust, to give critical feedback, to make an important request, and/or to deepen a connection.
Get clear about the intention that you have for the conversation and set yourself up for success by imaging it going well.
You’ll be less likely to assume the worst with this mindset in place.
When you assume the worst, instead of being clear about your positive intention and trusting it will unfold as you wish, you can often create a self-fulfilling prophecy and sabotage the potential for the conversation to go well.
Be clear about your intention and enter the conversation with it clearly in mind, allowing it to unfold as you wish.
2. Schedule a TIME for the difficult conversation
Timing is important with difficult conversations!
One of the worst things you can do is launch into a difficult discussion at a bad time for your significant other, when they are guaranteed to be less receptive.
Scheduling a time to have a difficult conversation is important for a few different reasons.
Firstly, it gives the message to your significant other that whatever you are bringing up is important.
I don’t encourage you to be accusative, angry or defensive when suggesting you schedule a time to talk…as in, “We’ve got to have a talk!” with all the doom and gloom insinuated in that classic statement.
Rather, bring it up openly, gently, with humility.
Try something like this:
“Hey, there’s something I really want to talk with you that is important to me, do you have any time later today or in the next few days when we can sit down and talk about this?”
Of course maybe they will ask you what it is right there and then:
“Sure, what is it? Let’s talk now.”
If you feel comfortable, you can have the conversation there and then.
If you feel more comfortable putting it on the calendar for a later time, that is completely fine.
I would suggest reassuring them not to worry about anything, but reinforce that you wanted to let them know that you have something important to talk with them about.
By the time you sit down to speak, you will likely have their attention.
Another benefit of scheduling a difficult talk is that it helps keep you accountable to actually have the hard conversation.
You’ll be ready, they’ll be ready, and the stage will be set.
One thing to keep in mind is that it’s important to schedule enough time to have this conversation. Really give yourselves space to get into it and make sure to leave room to hear what they have to say as well.
Scheduling a difficult conversation is so much more likely to yield a positive outcome than just starting one.
It’s guaranteed to lead to a better connection than coming out of left field with the topic of conversation if you’ve swept it under the rug, hoping it would just go away, when something triggers you and you can’t hold it together anymore with stored up disappointment and venom you thought you’d “get over” on your own.
Got something on your mind you need to share with someone?
Open up your calendars and go schedule a difficult conversation today.
3. Use a softened start-up to the difficult conversation
John Gottman is a psychologist and researcher who has been studying relationships for over 40 years.
He is widely known for being able to predict divorce within minutes of watching a couple interact (are you experiencing any of his 9 red flags in relationships? Click here to find out.)
His research has shown that how conversations begin are highly predictive of how they end.
Think about our first step to having a difficult conversation: Intention. How do you want your conversation to end?
Do your best to start it that way.
A softened start-up is one of the primary skills Gottman encourages his couples to embrace to improve conflict resolution.
It’s exactly how it sounds: Starting a difficult conversation softly, openly, non-defensively, as opposed to with a negative and attacking tone (as you may be tempted if you are feeling hurt and angry).
I love how Brendon Burchard discusses this as well.
He warns you not to lead from your selfish negative feelings.
This is a mistake we have all made that ultimately makes the already difficult conversation more difficult.
Instead, he offers an “xyz” approach that I think goes nicely with Gottman’s softened start-up.
Burchard’s xyz approach goes like this:
x – I heard or saw (whatever the topic is that you are bringing up).
y – It made me feel (hurt? angry? sad? scared? fill in the blank).
z – Can we talk about it?
Essentially, in so many of Burchard’s words, you’re getting permission to discuss it before demanding a discussion.
Do you see how much more potential this creates to actually have a productive conversation?
Start softly, with your intention in mind, from an emotionally grounded and open minded place, and ask your significant other to join the conversation by getting their permission.
By this point, you are already in good shape to have a productive difficult conversation.
The next step, however, is critical!
I know you have a ton to get off your chest and it’s been building and building and you’re doing all the right things, setting your intention, scheduling it, watching your tone, starting softly, and getting permission to have the conversation, and you’re totally ready to let it all out…
…but remember, it’s not a monologue, it’s a conversation.
If you take the word “listen” and rearrange the letters…what do you get?
After you’ve said your piece, you’ve really got to listen without judgment or defensiveness to where the other person is coming from.
Lay your assumptions and stories to the side if you have them, and really allow them to speak.
Make eye contact, try to see things from their perspective, and try to understand their position on whatever happened.
You’ve also probably heard that we were created with two ears and one mouth for a reason.
Now is your chance to use those ears of yours, and really listen.
Your full presence, attention and truly listening is one of the best gifts you could give to anyone, especially someone you care about during a difficult conversation.
Not only that, you’ll be able to more deeply understand their truth and be closer to them as a result.
When we feel understood, we’re better able to understand, so chances are, they’ll be more likely to see where you’re coming from as well.
Do these 4 steps to a difficult conversation work every time?
But that’s the beauty of the dynamic and challenges of relationships that we get to experience every day.
Being able to come together through difficult conversations helps us grow, evolve, understand each other more, and connect even more deeply to ourselves.
When handled well, although tempting to avoid or brush off, these difficult conversations can be our best gifts.
If you’ve got something on your mind that you’d rather not leave unsaid with someone important in your life, you’re doing them (and yourself) a favor by bringing it up.
- Your intentions for the difficult conversation
- Schedule a time for the difficult conversation
- Use a softened start-up
- Make sure to listen!
I hope this was helpful.
Let me know in the comments about what transpired from a difficult conversation that you’ve had — you never know who you could inspire to have the difficult conversation that’s been waiting for them!
Here’s to your strongest relationships and successful conversations, even the difficult ones,
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