An Inner Look at Difficult Conversations

Who says difficult conversations have to be difficult? Here are some important tips of conversing with your partner, child, co-worker, or neighbor that will likely lead to more successful and effective discussions.


What makes it difficult?


First, it may be helpful to consider what actually constitutes a difficult conversation topic. The truth is, any conversation can be made difficult. For some, talking about sex or finances can be extremely anxiety provoking, while others may be able to converse about these topics with relative ease.


Therefore, try avoiding making assumptions about what topics will be difficult to talk about simply because of what society or others deem taboo. Instead, acknowledge that your past experiences and history with the topic at hand contributes to how you feel about it, and will likely impact how a conversation about the topic will go. You know yourself better than anyone, so trust your gut on what you are comfortable and uncomfortable with, and adjust accordingly.


In general though, here are just a few of the many topics that people may find challenging to broach: Sex, money, bullying, substance use, social media decisions, personal hygiene, sharing news (health, divorce, moving, etc.), and so much more. The list really is endless.


Warm up.


You wouldn’t play a basketball game without first taking some warm up shots, nor would you go for a run without initially stretching. The same concept applies to having difficult conversations.


You will likely find more success in your conversation if you first prepare what you generally would like to say and what you would like the take home message to be. Sharing unformulated thoughts and feelings runs the risk of saying something hurtful that you don’t actually mean and/or sharing something you regret. Warming up in this context also involves stepping into the other person’s shoes before the conversation to consider their previous actions and how they may receive your thoughts and feelings. Warming up beforehand will go a long way in contributing to you feeling more comfortable, prepared, and compassionate.


Words matter.


How you say what you want to say is important. Here are a few recommendations on your word choice:


  • Replace ‘shoulds’ with ‘coulds.’ Try to spot the difference between the following statements: “You should have taken out the trash” versus “you could have taken out the trash.” Spot it? Using should often elicits feelings of guilt.
  • Acknowledge and express appreciation for their willingness to talk.
  • Take ownership for your feelings and use ‘I statements.’ For example, instead of saying, “You’re making me upset,” try saying, “I’m feeling upset.” This will help reduce the chance of pointing fingers and will also model healthy communication and accountability of feelings.
  • Speak to children at a developmentally appropriate level. Be mindful of their age, their vocabulary, and emotional capacity. Talking above their developmental level may result in confusion and them hearing something they are not ready to understand.


Active listening.


Don’t just hear the words they are saying. Instead listen with intent. This will help make the other person feeling heard, understood, and respected. Here are a few tips on active listening:

  • Pay attention by maintaining eye contact, not forming a rebuttal, and observing their body language.
  • Demonstrate your listening by nodding, appropriately using facial expressions, and encouraging them to continue with comments like “uh huh.”
  • Give feedback and check for accuracy by paraphrasing what you heard and asking clarification questions.
  • Leave judgment at the door by allowing them to finish their statements, not interrupting, and treating their thoughts and feelings with respect.
  • Respond appropriately by being open and honest, sharing thoughts respectfully, and putting yourself in their shoes before making statements.


Active listening increases your ability to hear and respond effectively, and models healthy communication skills.


A few final considerations.


  • Select the appropriate setting. Private, quiet places are always the right choice. And feel free to turn off the television to minimize opportunities for distraction.
  • Stay at the same eye level. Standing while the other person is sitting may create a perceived power inequality.
  • Allow for time-outs. If the discussion becomes too heated, it can be helpful to ‘call time-out’ or hit the ‘pause button.’ This may allow emotions to settle and for people to regroup their thoughts.
  • Set a time limit. No one wants to have a four-hour long conversation about why they got in trouble or why you are upset. Make sure it’s long enough to share ideas, thoughts, and feelings, and to come to a mutual understanding, but know when enough is enough.
  • Remember to be authentic. People (especially kids) detect out insincerity with ease, so being genuine will lead to a more successful conversation.
  • Be open to the possibility of not knowing, that your viewpoint may be wrong, and that you can learn something from the other person.
  • Pay attention to your own body (i.e. how your stomach feels, your heart rate, if your palms are sweaty, etc.) so that you can be aware of, accept, and appreciate, how you are feeling in that moment.
  • End the conversation with something positive. Even if you are feeling hurt or upset as a result of something your child said or did, it is important to express your unconditional love and support for them. Ending conversations by telling them that you love them no matter what will not only help them digest what was said in the conversation, but it will also likely expand your relationship so that they feel safe to talk to you about things in the future.
  • Finally, don’t forget to breathe!

Written by Alexander Friedman, Psy.D.

Inner Life Psychological Services

Chicago and Hinsdale, Illinois

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