Difficult Conversations

Sarah Black

Sarah Black

Difficult conversation  

Sometimes, difficult conversations are necessary. You might need to clear the air or confront a problem directly. When you’re not prepared, you might say something our of anger that you don’t really mean. Taking things personally or losing our temper are typical problems that make a simple conversation harder than it needs to be. 

The secret to making difficult conversations easier is pretty simple – but very few people actually do it. 

Taking a few minutes to plan out what needs to be said will give you a better chance of keeping the conversation amicable. Without a game plan, it’s easy to let the emotions run the show rather than staying focused on what’s really important. 

Create a Positive Intention 

Talking things out in the heat of the moment can go sideways fast. Creating an intention, you are setting a specific goal that guides your behaviour. 

When setting an intention, here are some things to consider: 

  • What is your ultimate goal here? 
  • Is your intention to be right or to prove a point? 
  • Do you need to be heard or to resolve a misunderstanding? 
  • Are you more focused on getting your point across than on listening? 
  • Do you still care about how the other person feels or are you too angry? 

Positive intentions will avoid self-serving motives that create problems. For instance, if the intention only benefits you, it’s not going to be helpful. Strive to create an intention that serves the greater good for you and the relationship. 

Tip: Setting a clear intention will clarify what’s important and what’s just plain ego. 

Tips to Minimise Defensiveness 

The longer it takes to explain yourself, the more likely something hurtful will be said. Instead, choose your words wisely to avoid contributing a defensive reaction. I recommend spending a few minutes writing it out like a script. Believe me this can make or break how a conversation unfolds. 

Tips for Minimizing Defensiveness: 

  • Avoid bringing up the past or non-related issues 
  • Don’t use words like always or never (which aren’t accurate anyway) 
  • Start the conversation with an “I” statement rather than a “you” statement 

A “you” statement implies blame and targets another person’s faults – which contributes to getting a defensive reaction. 

Once someone reacts defensively, it’s difficult to stop the cycle of blame. Keep your communication short and simple which will make it easier to stay calm. 

Create a Personalised Script 

Here are three ways to keep it short and sweet: 

  1. Communicate your upset in no more than 2-3 simple sentences. 
  1. Avoid making any negative assumptions or pre-determined judgments. 
  1. Stick to the facts of what happened without conveying that you’re right. 

Avoid making generalisations. Using words like always and never will trigger anger and hurt. Instead, always be specific when expressing your concerns. 

Watch Your Stress Level! 

Pay attention to stress because you’re more likely say things that you don’t mean when you’re upset. Suggest postponing if the timing isn’t right. You will save yourself a lot of heartache in the long run if you have a little patience. 

Here is a quick way to keep track of your stress. 

HALT stands for: Don’t get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. It’s a 12 step acronym that helps you identify stress. When a conversation gets tense, it’s usually one of these (or a combination) that’s the culprit. 

Tip: When starting a difficult conversation, make sure you’re calm enough to listen and talk without losing your cool. 

Let Go of Being Right 

Expressing yourself without blame or shame is the difference between healthy and unhealthy communication. This doesn’t mean you that can’t be honest. If you’re hurt, be hurt. If you’re angry, be angry but keep your words focused on your own experience. Expressing yourself clearly gives you a fighting chance to be heard. 

One important note here; there is no right or wrong in relationships, only point of view. When people get stuck on being right, they are setting up the other person to be wrong and that never feels good. 

When concerns are expressed as an opinion not a fact, they come across more gently. It’s great to use gentle phrases like: 

  • “When this happened I felt …” 
  • “To me, it seemed…” 
  • “ I felt…about what happened.” 
  • “I’m concerned that…” 
  • “I know you had no intentions to hurt me…” 

Tip: Write out what’s bothering you in a few short sentences before bringing it up. Ask a trusted friend for feedback if you need help. 

Adjust Your Expectations 

Expecting to resolve an issue immediately isn’t realistic. The purpose of healthy communication is to increase mutual understanding. That can’t happen without listening to each other first. Listening without jumping to conclusions gives you a shot at calm, respectful communication. 

Here are some quick Do’s and Don’ts for having tough conversations: 

  • Do go into it calm. 
  • Do hear the other person out. 
  • Do keep the focus on one topic. 
  • Do focus on specific behaviour not a person’s character. 
  • Do validate what you agree with. 
  • Don’t blame or criticize. 
  • Don’t use abusive language. 
  • Don’t bring up the past. 
  • Don’t attack the person, just the problem. 
  • Don’t try to be right or superior. 
  • Don’t respond to every little comment. 

Final Thoughts 

Difficult conversations are more productive when you go into them prepared. Once you’re ready, pick a mutually agreed upon time. Nothing destroys a conversation faster than trying to talk when one of you is too tired or irritable. 

One last thing…being accountable – though challenging at times – has a calming effect. It’s much harder to argue with someone who can acknowledge their own behaviour right? 


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