How To Have A Difficult Conversation
We tend to avoid difficult conversations for many reasons. We may be afraid to start a fight; we may think we would be rejected or misunderstood; we don’t want to annoy; maybe the point we would like to make is too trivial and so on.
The idea that there are things you can’t talk about with your partner because the subject is too sensitive may not be the primary problem.
The primary problem gets raised when the subject is something you both need to talk about but avoid.
The typical scenario is when an attempt is made to discuss something each partner comes at the subject from a very different point of view. In other words, defenses are brought to bear that often cause different perceptions about the subject.
What is often misunderstood when emotions are high is that coming to a discussion open-minded is a learned skill. It takes discipline to tamp down your emotions to accomplish your goal. Only practice helps you get better at it.
The reason for this is self-evident. We both have different information or perspectives about the subject and we need to be open to hearing from the other to have the conversation.
We may have differing interpretations of the same information. Our interpretations are driven by our personal experience. We fail to see that there may be more than one interpretation of the same reality.
We can’t pretend to sugarcoat something that may be distasteful or unpleasant but necessary to talk about. However there are ways to approach the subject that can make the conversation more productive.
The following strategies and explanations are meant to address that very idea. By approaching the conversation differently, you will have a much better outcome.
Conversation Strategy: What Not To Do
Do not distort the facts to make your point: Any information you have about the subject should be presented fairly and accurately. Don’t amplify or misrepresent what you know as it can cause distrust. You and your partner will have had a different experience and point of view. You both need to share your information.
Do not let your emotions control you: If things are not going your way you may become upset, angry or even hostile. Controlling your feelings so that you can have an effective and productive conversation is critical.
Do not discount your partner’s point of view: Each of you has a right to your own point of view. Perceptions are determined subjectively, there may not be a right or wrong, just a point of view. Be open to hearing it.
Do not focus on blame: Focusing on blame may seem the natural thing to do but it only brings up questions about who is bad, who should apologize or who made the mistake. It is not an effective way to learn about what really happened and why and how to correct it. Or, if things are not correctible, how to move forward.
Conversation Strategy: What to Do Instead
Set the Tone: State your appreciation for your partner’s willingness to participate in a difficult conversation. Make it clear that you want their input and that you are willing to listen to their point of view as well as express yourself clearly.
Set a Time Limit: An important meeting should have a time frame. Some discussions go bad when they begin to feel interminable or without end. My recommendation is 30-45 minutes, or at most, an hour. You can always make another time to continue.
Set the Goal: Even if the goal is simply to exchange each other’s points of view, be clear when beginning the discussion. The objective here is to stay on task and not go off on tangents.
Have a Listening Attitude: This means that you are willing to learn what your partner has to say by asking questions and paraphrasing what you think they mean by their answers. You want to keep in mind the importance of this discussion, recognizing that there is an objective, so that you genuinely acknowledge your partner’s thoughts and feelings about the subject.
Look for Common Ground: Although you may be dealing with a subject where you both have different points of view, there is still a possibility that there is some common ground on which to agree. If so, you may be able to find a way to a mutual understanding. Do not let emotion cloud your thinking…stay alert and listen.
Be Prepared: Try to predict the types of problems that you will likely be facing when you have the discussion with your partner. Think things through and formulate some ideas about how you want to handle the conversation when those issues come up.
Take Responsibility: You are both in the relationship together. There may be something you are doing or saying unintentionally that might trigger a provocative response from your partner. It is always best to give your partner the benefit of the doubt. You might say, “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings” or “please forgive that last remark, it was thoughtless and I apologize”. This does not mean you then stop talking. This is only meant to help you get back on track.
Stay Focused: You both benefit when you stay on point with a particular issue. If you begin acting or saying things reflexively there is a tendency to lose focus and get off the subject. To avoid this problem be sure to prepare yourself well. Think about the type of response that will benefit you most and employ it.
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About the Author
Dr. Stan Hyman is a licensed psychotherapist, clinical sexologist and life coach in private practice in Miami, Florida. He works with couples struggling with powerful issues such as sexuality, infidelity, careers, and intimacy. He also specializes in treating addictions, anger, anxiety, stress, depression and work-life balance.
Call or email for a cost-free telephone consultation. Services are rendered either at the office located at 2999 NE 191 St. Suite 703, Miami, Florida 33180 or through video conference via Skype or FaceTime. Serving all of the greater Miami, Florida area or, through video conference, anywhere that there is a broadband internet connection.