10 Tips For Tough Conversations

☹ Your partner watches so much porn that it’s impeding on your sex life
☹ Your friend got a bf and seems to have completely lost their personality
☹ Your partner says embarrassing things in the company of other people

These are just some of the emails I get from people who ask: “how do I talk to them about this?” Every single one of us, at one time or another, will be in a situation where we really need to sit down and talk with someone about something that is very hard to talk about, uncomfortable, sensitive, or otherwise challenging.

Here are 10 tips that have helped me to smooth out tough conversations.

1. Be intentional about timing
For situations where emotions are running high, it helps to reserve *the talk* for a time when you are both at ease, comfortable, not sleepy, not angry, not about to leave, not hungry, etc. Get as close to possible to the conditions required for a rational, level-headed conversation. Don’t spring it on them or open the conversation as a confrontation after an incident.

2. Think first, talk second
The reason why opening the conversation as a confrontation usually fails is because you’re fueled by strong negative emotions. That’s ok, it’s normal, it’s human. But in the case of conflict resolution, it typically doesn’t serve us beyond feeling satisfying. If there is something that has been building up in a relationship, take plenty of time to think about how you feel about it and how you could communicate that to them. Given the personality and characteristics of that person, what’s the best way to let them know what’s going on? It helps to know what you want to ask from them, make sure it’s realistic, and think about how you might propose your solution. And of course, your solution could be to find a solution.

3. Be aware of your tone
Your tone sets the precedent for the entire conversation. Sometimes it’s justifiable to be angry and accusatory. Choose those times wisely! I find that, more often than not, a gentle non-accusatory entry to the conversation is much more effective.

4. Open the conversation gently
Similar to tone is what you choose to say at the start. “You are such a bitch I can’t even hang out with you anymore” is not going to glide over as well as “I really miss hanging out like old times”. Avoid attacks. Instead, start with how you feel and go from there.

5. Phrase your questions strategically & in good intent
In arguments, questions (especially the sarcastic ones) are often used as a tool of attack. Stay sincere with your questions. Try to frame them in a way that’s not going to make the other person out to be the bad guy before they have a chance to defend themselves. This is just going to put them on the defense. When someone’s on the defense, they aren’t listening to what you’re saying.

6. Own your claims
When you make claims and statements, try to qualify that they are YOUR opinion, YOUR perception, YOUR feelings, YOUR desires, etc when appropriate. For instance: “To me it seemed like”, “In my opinion it”, “I feel like”, “From where I’m coming from”, etc. This helps to keep the other person off the defensive because this language dulls the tendency to sound accusatory when we’re talking about a problem we have with someone/something.

7. Listen
Speaking of which….listening is really important. In life, I try to make sure I’m listening just as much as I’m speaking. I don’t want to hog the mic. Give them a chance to talk and listen to them without judgment. Try to sincerely understand where they’re coming from so you can effectively assess what you should do.

8. Avoid angry outbursts
When you’re yelling, screaming, calling each other names, etc you are no longer hearing each other. You’re just letting off steam in a way that will further complicate your situation. If you become angry or frustrated, pause and take a moment to breath. Let your heartbeat and your anger come down to a level where you can properly communicate. Similarly, learn to recognize when the situation has escalated too much to continue and calmly walk away. You can always revisit it after a cool down.

9. Compromise
Flexibility will solve so many more problems than “my way or the highway”. In problem solving, work together to find solutions that work for both of you. Value eachother’s satisfaction in the situation and recognize that compromise can sometimes be a looong process. In addition, it not a bad idea to have a healthy base of things you just won’t compromise. (i.e. I will not compromise my safety, I will not compromise my goals, etc). Learn to distinguish between things that aren’t up for compromise and things that you just don’t want to compromise.

10. Follow up on your conversation
After a particularly hard conversation, follow up on it after a day or two. This might mean apologizing if you said things you didn’t mean, it might mean showing appreciation for their receptiveness, it might mean telling them that you still feel weird about it, etc. This will help bring closure to the conversation or to further communicate the need for more discussion. Some ways to follow up are:
“I feel really bad about what I said yesterday, you mean a lot to me and I don’t want to hurt you. Will you accept my apology?”
“I appreciate you listening to my thoughts yesterday, that was really bothering me and I feel much better now.”
“I’m glad we got to talk yesterday, but I still feel uneasy about it. I hope we can talk about it more in the future.”

What strategies have you used in conflict to help you get your needs met?

15 thoughts on “10 Tips For Tough Conversations

  1. Talking face-to-face is always best, but I’ve also found great success, when things are really tough or both people involved are pressed for time, in communicating with letters or emails. Being able to have both parties set out their feelings on paper beforehand, so that each comes into the confrontation with an understanding of where the other is coming from, has really helped me out in the past. I’m a person who tends to clam up during confrontation and can’t articulate my feelings well, so this makes working through problems with friends and family a lot easier.

  2. Huh, I’m curious about the reverse of this – when someone has something to tell you, but you don’t see it as a problem.
    As an example, an ex of mine use to make claims in conversations about things she didn’t know, but thought she did (incorrect facts, incorrect numbers, one shining example is that my ex once said acceleration due to gravity is about 10 feet per second… (actually about 9.8m/s^2)) when I knew the actual answer, I would correct her – not to be rude, but because misinformation detracts from the actual conversation. Over the course of 2 years, nothing was said about this – then, around the start of the 3rd year of the relationship she finally told me to stop “making her look stupid in front of her friends” and she said that me correcting her was what she meant.
    I explained that I was just trying to be helpful, she didn’t believe me. I agreed to stop, because it didn’t seem worth fighting over to me.

    So the point of all this I suppose, is how do you explain your side of the story, to someone who refuses to believe any explanation besides the one they think they already figured out? it’s very frustrating trying to explain yourself to someone, who thinks they already know your reasoning…

    • I don’t mean to go on a tangent, but this kind of reminds me of a conversation I was having about this weird standard a lot of people have about intelligence when it comes to one’s partners.

      Guys with less intelligent girls like “dumb girls because it’s easy” and girls with less intelligent guys are “settling for less” and such. Isn’t it more important that the person have the qualities you desire such as: compassion, humor, honesty, loyalty, adventurousness, etc.?

      Maybe it’s some of the the people I’ve known, but I think it’s a bit strange was happy to read that you’re response wasn’t anything along the lines of, “I think you’re too dumb to be with me.”

      • My ex wasn’t dumb at all (I don’t date people I would consider dumb, ever), but on the topics they didn’t know they’d would make mistakes, and sometimes just make stuff up. With topics my ex did know well, it was a little staggering how encyclopedic they could get.

        • If you were correcting her when she was having conversation with friends, I can understand she felt embarrassed. Sometimes you aren’t aware of that you have your facts wrong.

          Telling her in front of people is kind of rude, because you are making her seem stupid in front of people by correcting her. It’s the same for me with talking english. My boyfriend is English, and I appriciate he helps me out with words, but when I’m just saying them different because of my accent it makes me pissed off he has to correct it. Like, I’m having an important conversation with him and he’ll interupt me and make me aware I said something wrong. Now that’s rude!

          If it’s so important to you to correct your girlfriend, do it when you get home. I can understand you, I don’t like people saying things that isn’t facts either like that, but don’t do it in front of people. Do it when you get home to spare her that embarrassment… =

  3. Clear, concise, and honest communication is what’s important I think. One of the most annoying hurdles I think is when people aren’t honest or clear about what they want which makes talking about the symptoms of the issue pointless.

  4. So I have a question. How do I react when someone is getting into an argument with me, and I’m doing all of these things, but they aren’t. For example, I have a friend who whenever we get into a conversation, and I start of by saying “I feel like…” they automatically start to ignore me, or say “uh huh” in a very sarcastic way, like they aren’t listening. Then when I’m done, they start to talk, and they won’t let me respond, even after they’re finished. They just say to me, “I don’t want to hear it.” How do you deal with someone like that? I can’t have a conversation with this person because its impossible!!!!! I’m extremely frustrated.

    • I find that when someone won’t actually listen to what you have to say that becomes a whole other argument in itself. Take the time when things have cooled down to approach them with why it is that they refuse to take a step back from the conversation to try and see where your coming from? I run into this same issue a lot considering most people don’t practice good listening skills. I find it incredibly frustrating to try and bring logic into a clearly emotional outburst. In some cases I think it is because the person you are talking to just isn’t on your same maturity and learning level or perhaps it was the only way for them to express themselves in previous arguments. Monkey see monkey do kinda thing. Whatever the case they need to grow up or learn that arguments like that help no one. I personally can’t tolerate people like that and choose to cut them out of my life because teaching them how to argue like an adult isn’t worth my time, but that’s just me.

  5. Laci, you are fantastic! Everyone on the planet should be taught compassionate communication at an early age :) also, would you be interested in writing a little something about codependent relationships? This ties in to communication, because when you are in a “subservient” role in a codependent relationship, the other person tends to bend conversations in such a way where their answers are always vague/dubious/manipulative. I just think that many people do not understand the nature of codependent relationships and I’ve seen SO many people repeating these relationship patterns due to unaddressed trauma and whatnot.

    Anyway, much love to you Laci. Thank you for being you. :)

  6. I had a fight yesterday with my boyfriend that I can’t get out of my head. He and I have been dating for 6 years, and we’re usually very happy with each other, but in the past few months I have been feeling like I’ve been pushed away. I talked to him about that and we’re working though that, but thats a story for another time.
    He is going to college that is rather far away, I mean like a five hour plane ride far. I don’t have a passport nor the money to go visit him, so we’ve been talking on Skype so far.
    Yesterday, he suddenly ended the call and told me he’d be back in ten minutes. I was fine with that, thinking he was going to go make food or something. Ten minutes later he came back and I asked him what had happened. He told me he was watching porn. I found it kind of rude, so I told him, I was careful of my tone and made sure I didn’t raise my voice. He practically blew up on me, he yelled and his exact words were “I’m sorry did you need my immediate attention” I found that hurtful, and we talked about it. He apologized for it, we went to bed a few hours later and we were both happy, but I can’t stop thinking about it. We had set a time for us to be on today and he didn’t show. I waited the entire day, just to be sure he wasn’t busy with classes or he overslept. I also couldn’t sleep last night so I stayed logged onto Skype while I used the computer. I’m not sure what to do, I’m afraid to send him an email incase he came on the hour I went out to dinner with my dad and I just missed him. I don’t even know what to say the next time we talk.

  7. Adding to what Kelly said previously – what are you supposed to do if you’re trying to do all these things and the other person isn’t? I’m still a teenager and I’m having this problem a lot. It’s depressing enough that I only have one or two people in my life I can rely on and respect at the moment, but sometimes it seems like I can’t even relate to those select few. My mother for instance has this implacable perception of me and my motives, and when I try and explain myself or a problem I have with her, she doesn’t listen. I’m who she thinks I am, she knows what I want, and that’s that. My friend, like the rest of my year level, often says racist/sexist/body negative things, and I feel like I’m constantly berating her for it, which never goes down well. And when I try and carefully approach her about her attitude, doing the above things, regardless, she turns hostile upon hearing any criticism or turns sarcastic or says she’s “only joking”. I have no idea what to do. My world seems to only contain prejudiced idiots, and the only open-minded people I’ve heard of are a few thousand miles away. The world we live in is awful, I wish I could be a part of a different one.

  8. yeah i was wondering why my boyfriend and i fought so much, then i started researching communication things like this. unfortunately, it only works if both of you are doing what is stated above. he was abusive, so he didnt.

  9. So my problem is that… well, i live in a campus dorm, and my roommate… sorta literally moved out to live with her girlfriend, so we aren’t in physical contact and she hasn’t responded online to anything in a while. our dorm flatmates aren’t so good, so i’m kinda feeling a cross between pissed off and jealous that she ditched me for her girlfriend. and basically left me alone in the dorm with people i dont talk to and in the room so its empty and awkward.
    becuz i dont really have that many options to contact her, im wondering what this’d lead to…? i mean, shes probably happy since she’s finally living with people she can associate with and i was pretty much the only person in the dorm she was ok with and now she got to escape and now i’m alone. :S

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