Do you like tough conversations?
You know, the ones where you have to carve time out and sit across from each other and talk through something that may be emotionally charged?
Like anyone else, I really prefer to do it when I’m in a good place with the people in my life that are important to me. I think we all do. But sometimes, we’re in a place where we must engage in tough conversations. Maybe it’s about boundary setting or letting someone know they’ve hurt our feelings. Maybe it’s about expressing a need for help, and that may feel hard to do.
The natural tendency for most people is to shy away from conflict and discomfort, but the reality is those uncomfortable moments often present us with growth. Each time you accidentally hit a trigger, unintentionally upset someone, or find yourself having to say, “I’m not sure we’re on the same page here,” offers a glimpse into yourself and an opportunity to STRETCH your comfort zone. These moments are about choosing vulnerability and courage over safety and comfort.
I am incredibly lucky to have a very patient husband who mostly listens without defensiveness when I want to talk. I know that not everyone can say that, and it can be really frightening and anxiety-producing to bring things up that could quickly change the temperature of the room from light and fun to heavy and deep. However, to improve closeness and communication in any relationship and learn to support each other more fully, you MUST learn to speak your needs to each other. Most couples report that they feel closer to their partner, better understood, and perceive their needs are being met after conversations that take them out of their comfort zone just a little. Brene Brown calls these hard conversations “rumbles” and says the following:
“Sometimes speaking the truth feels as if we are being unkind, especially when sharing difficult information or feedback. But in reality, dancing around the truth is unkind. When we avoid stating the truth—when we are vague or ambiguous under the guise of being kind—it is often because we are trying to lessen the discomfort for ourselves, not for the other person.”
This kind of closeness can cause high anxiety for people but the alternative— keeping a relationship in a constant state of low anxiety —has the potential to cause resentment when one’s feelings are “stuffed” out of fear of rocking the boat. This applies to friendships, partners, parents, children, coworkers, managers…you name it.
If the person is a stakeholder in your well-being or you in theirs, these tips can help you navigate these conversations.
- Time the conversation right. Sometimes waiting for the perfect time to have a conversation can mean it never happens. If your lives are like mine, you stay on the go most of the time. Don’t be afraid to ask for a few minutes, and at the same time, don’t start what could be a tough conversation as you’re walking out the door. Make sure you have time when phones can be off, and distractions are minimal.
- Start the conversation with a gentle start-up. A gentle start-up is a way of broaching a conversation in a way that doesn’t create defensiveness. If I say, “Hey, we need to talk,” the person on the other end is likely already on edge. If I say, “Do you have a moment? I’ve had something on my mind,” you may be met with a more open recipient. A hard conversation does not have to turn into a negative conversation. Additionally, stating your need in a positive way and saying what you DO want such as, “I’d really love it if we had more time focused on each other rather than our phones,” rather than stating it as something you DON’T want such as, “I really wish you weren’t on your phone so much.”.
- Be mindful of tone and word choice. The tone you use with your partner will indicate whether you’re coming at them with an accusation or to them for support. It is human nature to defend oneself when feeling attacked. If you’re trying to avoid an attack, think about how your approach may be perceived. Both tone and word choice are facets of communication we have control over (believe it or not) and things we can monitor and keep in check.
- Be open to feedback. Sometimes when we’re speaking passionately about something, we get louder. A loud voice can be a threat cue. You may not intend to come across with aggression or anger, but if someone reads it that way, it’s true for them, and arguing about whether or not you actually were loud or hostile totally derails the conversation. Accept the feedback, modulate your tone, and carry on. Both people should feel respected and heard in the conversation.
- Truly Listen. It can be very easy to start planning your defense or retaliation when someone is speaking. When you do this, you miss some nuances of what the person is trying to tell you. Listen as if you were being asked to repeat back to them. Listen with empathy and curiosity. Listen with the understanding that they are coming to you because they LOVE you and want a better relationship. As psychologist Harriet Lerner teaches: Listen with the same passion with which we want to be heard.
- Be open that your assumption about someone else’s intention may be incorrect. We often assume that someone is doing something TO us or because they don’t care about us. When we approach with this energy, we are setting the scene up for conflict. Keep the possibility open that the person you are talking to wants what is in your best interest. Even if they disagree or say no, it’s not because they simply don’t care.
Navigating tough conversations can be essential to having healthy relationships and establishing relational support. Listen to this Stronger U Radio podcast with our special guest, licensed psychoanalyst and relationship coach Jordan Dann to hear more about how boundaries and nervous system regulation also play a role.