An uncomfortable but inevitable part of every relationship is the difficult conversation. For many of us, they involve overthinking, fear, and avoidance.
But as unpleasant as they may feel, difficult conversations are one of the hallmarks of strong relationships. Getting comfortable with them and learning to do them well can bring vulnerability and freedom to every relationship in your life.
What Is a Difficult Conversation?
In their book ‘Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most‘, Doug Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen write, “A difficult conversation is anything you find it hard to talk about.”
Whether you’re letting a friend know that they hurt you, asking a family member for a favor, or confronting a colleague about a missed deadline, the potential for a difficult conversation is there.
Difficult conversations are one of the hallmarks of strong relationships.
The thing that makes these conversations so hard is that there is risk involved no matter what you do.
If you don’t discuss the issue at hand, you might not be able to let it go. You could feel increasingly resentful toward the other person, and the situation could continue to get worse.
But if you decide to talk about what’s bothering you, the other person may feel surprised, hurt, or angry.
Sometimes it feels easier to avoid the conversation, and possibly the other person, altogether. But often, the only way to get a relationship issue off of your mind is to actually talk about it.
Why Are They Important?
As people, it’s in our nature to hurt each other. We make mistakes, we find ourselves in bad moods, and we miscommunicate.
It’s impossible for us to understand all of the motivations, intentions, and life experiences that others carry with them. So we say and do things that we don’t mean or that we don’t know will hurt someone we care about.
When this happens to me, it can feel easier to turn away from the person who has emotionally wounded me. A fear of abandonment can make me believe that if I bring up something uncomfortable, the other person will no longer want to be a part of my life.
But sometimes we need to teach other people how to love us.
If we want to come to a place where we are truly known and loved, and where we can do the same for someone else, it’s important to confront the pain in a relationship and give it an opportunity to strengthen.
A difficult conversation is a wonderful way to do that.
How Can You Make It Easier?
With a few steps, preparing for a difficult conversation can involve less anxiety.
Give yourself a bit of time to process how you are feeling and why. With a deeper understanding of what you want to communicate, the conversation is more likely to have a positive outcome.
Prepare the other person
It’s helpful to give the other person some context so that they’re emotionally ready for a difficult conversation. Sending a text message that says, “We need to talk” can cause anxiety. “Are you available for coffee this week? I’d like to talk about our conversation at Ashley’s party”, gives them enough information to be prepared.
Don’t hesitate to apologize
Before engaging in a difficult conversation, take time to reflect on whether your words or actions played any part in the conflict you’re experiencing. Maybe you forgot to communicate something important, or your reaction escalated the situation.
Apologizing shows humility and communicates to the other person that you want to heal the relationship, rather than assigning blame. This can help them feel more comfortable owning their part in the conflict.
Lead with inquiry
When you’re upset with another person, it can be easy to make assumptions about their intentions. But our assumptions are often incorrect and can lead the other person to shut down.
Instead, come prepared with a few questions to get more information. How were you feeling when the situation happened? Is there anything I did to make that moment more difficult for you?
Assuming the best and asking questions can bring more details to light, giving you the opportunity for healing and to avoid the same issues in the future.
Suggest a solution
While the difficult conversation and apology are a good start, rebuilding trust takes time and effort. Make a commitment to the other person that will help heal your relationship, like, I will be more aware of my tone of voice when I get upset. This will encourage them to make a similar commitment and give you a path to move forward together on.
The Key to Lasting Relationships
Using difficult conversations to deal with conflict is crucial to maintaining long term relationships.
Being willing to work through a tough situation shows that you value that relationship above your pride, fear, anger, or any other emotion that might get in the way of healing a relationship.
And successfully processing together solidifies your commitment to each other, while adding to a track record of fighting for your relationship.
Doing this habitually with another person will teach you about their needs, hopes, and fears. And it gets a little easier each time you do it.
So consider all of the important relationships in your life. Is there anything you need to talk about?
Don’t hesitate to show your love for someone else by having a difficult conversation.
– Photo credit: Nordwood Themes