How To Approach Difficult Conversations

Sometimes the most important discussions are also the most difficult. Below are some helpful steps for approaching those conversations.

Step 1: Pick your battles. You will constantly live in drama instead of peace if you make an issue of everything that bothers you. There are times that it’s best to just let things go. But there are other times when something is important enough that it needs to be addressed. Only you can determine which things should be dismissed and which should be discussed. Give some thought to this — don’t let important things go unaddressed but also try not to make mountains out of molehills.

Step 2: Think through the outcome you want. Never approach a difficult conversation with someone without first determining what you hope will be accomplished. If you try to have a difficult conversation that only focuses on the problem, you will come away with even greater frustration. Instead, approach the conversation with a suggested solution in mind.

Step 3: Jot down your concerns ahead of time so that you don’t forget what you want to say. It’s great to also mentally rehearse your words, but if you’re nervous, things may slip your mind when it comes to actually having the conversation. Having something written down can help you feel more prepared and less anxious about the conversation.

Step 4: Call it what it is. Start with a statement like, “I need to have a difficult conversation with you,” or “there is something important that I need to discuss with you and it may be an awkward conversation.” This helps the other person to know that you need their attention and that this is something important to you. Try to say you want to “talk with” them instead of “talk to” them. Try to say it calmly and not with an attitude.

Step 5: Be careful with your tone. People tend to hear your tone more than they hear your words. Don’t initiate a conversation like this when you are highly emotional or you will most likely end up saying things that make it worse instead of better. Have this conversation when you can be genuine and respectful and resist the urge to escalate, even if the other person does. Remember — things generally get better when you have a conversation but worse when you have an argument.

Step 6: Stick to the issue at hand. Don’t let the other person throw you a curveball and get you off the topic that you wanted to discuss. They may try to bring up other things so that they can avoid discussing the problem. If this happens, redirect the conversation back to the main issue and let the other person know that you will agree to discuss the other issues at another time. Don’t attempt to tackle too many issues in one conversation or you may not get anything resolved. If you can resolve one issue, that is progress that you can build on.

Step 7: Stay calm. Hopefully if you keep your cool, the other person will too. However, if they become defensive and make accusations of you in an attempt to shift the blame, remind yourself that you don’t have to take any unreasonable guilt trips. Try not to raise your voice and try to express your feelings in a respectful manner, without calling names or making intentionally hurtful statements. Again, keep in mind what you want the outcome of this conversation to be. Be mindful of what your body language conveys — try to avoid rolling your eyes, huffing, pointing your finger, or waving your arms around. Those things happen in arguments, not conversations.

Step 8: Make sure to listen. Express your concerns but also be willing to listen to what the other person has to say. This may help you better understand where they’re coming from or why they said what they said or did what they did. Don’t interrupt them — give them a fair chance to speak and try to genuinely understand their perspective. It’s ok to calmly ask for the same respect when you are speaking.

Step 9: Clarify. It’s critical that you understand each other and what you are both attempting to communicate. If you’re not sure that you understand something clearly, ask the other person to explain a little further. It’s ok to let them know that you’re uncertain of what they mean. It’s better to ask for clarification than to continue a misunderstanding. On the flipside, make sure that the other person understands what you are trying to say as well. Be willing to put it in other words if necessary and don’t let that ruffle your feathers. If you’re going to all this trouble to have this difficult conversation, then be willing to talk it through. Don’t fall prey to thoughts like, “they should just know.” They don’t just know — this is why you’re having this conversation.

Step 10: End with a plan for the next step. Try to wind up your conversation with an agreement about what will happen next. What will each of you commit to do differently? When can you discuss this again? Make sure to tell the other person that you appreciate their willingness to talk through this issue with you. It’s also ok to let them know that it was difficult for you to initiate this conversation. Being open about this can help them to understand that this is an important matter to you.

Following these steps will help you navigate difficult but necessary conversations that will hopefully lead to positive and lasting change.

Published by Julie Bailey, LCPC

I am a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in the state of Illinois. I hold a master's degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, I'm an author and a clinical manager and my life goal is to help you live your best life possible. I get excited about the daffodils in the spring and the colorful leaves in the fall (I mean like ridiculously excited). I enjoy genealogy, old cemeteries, loud music, and trivia, and I refuse to ever outgrow Harry Potter. I am an empath, which means that I literally feel the pain of others, and from time to time, this requires a visit to a quiet beach so that the wind and waves can soothe my soul.

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