We humans love to talk. Conversations serve many purposes: to pass the time, to learn about people and the world, to exchange information, to share a laugh. Sometimes the function of discourse is to get what we want: a change in behavior, a raise, a resolution to some disagreement. These higher-stakes conversations can be anxiety-inducing because there is so much that can go wrong. Will our partner get defensive when we ask them not to make jokes at the expense of our family? Will our best friend dismiss us when we say we fear we’ve grown apart? We may bite our tongue and hope whatever’s eating us up inside fades.
“We don’t avoid conversations because they don’t matter,” says Michael Yeomans, an assistant professor at Imperial College Business School who studies decision-making in conversation. “We avoid them because they do matter.”
Steering clear of potentially consequential conversations can be detrimental to relationships. Left unaddressed, even minor concerns can brew into resentment, anger, and depression — often to the complete surprise of the other party. If you never have potentially thorny chats, you risk never learning the appropriate way to navigate interpersonal conflict, and those you interact with never have the opportunity to change their ways.
Hope is not lost. There are tactics you can employ to deftly share your concerns without accusation, embarrassment, or outrage. All that’s needed is a plan, an objective outlook, and an understanding of what your conversation partner will be most receptive to.
What to do before you have the conversation
Before bringing up a gripe or potential point of contention, decide if it’s even worth discussing. Are you just in a bad mood and are likely to feel differently tomorrow? Is the issue something that you’re unable to change and may only ruffle feathers? (Like telling your partner you find their parents annoying.) Take a beat and consider the alternatives to the discussion, suggests Erin Wehrman, an associate professor at Missouri State University whose research focuses on interpersonal and family communication. What’s the best possible outcome from broaching this conversation? What’s the worst? If the worst that could happen is you argue for a few minutes, you may consider bringing up your concerns.
Taking time to reflect may allow you to be more objective in assessing the situation. Try to focus on the facts of the situation, Wehrman says, instead of filling in the blanks and assuming the other person’s intentions. Your cousin made a comment and it made you angry. A neighbor parked in front of your house and you felt disrespected. “My story about why people do the things that they do,” Wehrman says, “that is my story, that’s opinion.” Collecting and presenting the facts gives your conversation partner the opportunity to explain their perspective without needing to go on the defensive.
You may be feeling nervous about angering or disappointing the person you want to speak to — “this is normal, and emotions are very normal,” Wehrman says. “It’s just part of our body’s reaction to stress.” She suggests preparing exactly what you’ll say and then considering a few potential ways the other person might respond. Have a plan for each outcome. If they respond to your concerns defensively, you might take a different approach (more on this later) than if they are validating and receptive. Remind yourself that improving a relationship involves advocating for yourself.
How to prepare for the conversation
If you decide the issue is worth discussing, you’ll want a plan based on your goals. What do you hope to accomplish? Then consider how the other person might react based on different ways of broaching the conversation. You want to avoid venting, for instance, if you’d like the other person to change their behavior in some way, like becoming more mindful of the language they’re using in front of your children. “Try to avoid using them as a listening board for your own emotions because that translates to very different goals,” says Chris Segrin, head of the University of Arizona’s department of communication and a behavioral scientist whose specialty is interpersonal relationships. “I want to get this off my chest, off my mind, versus there’s something I would like to see different, some change.”
Think about the setting, too. You won’t want to initiate a deep conversation at the dinner table with extended family or after they’ve worked a 16-hour shift, says licensed marriage and family therapist Kiaundra Jackson. “If they are in a good mood, if they’re smiling, if they just ate,” she says, “this might be a good time to have that difficult conversation.” Just be sure to ask if they’re open to chatting before interrupting their favorite TV show.
Then make a plan for when you’ll walk away. If anyone starts yelling or name-calling, you’ll suggest taking a breather and revisiting the conversation later, Wehrman says.
Segrin suggests rehearsing what you’ll say ahead of time, either mentally or with a trusted neutral party.
How to start the conversation
Getting the ball rolling can be the most stressful part of any difficult conversation. Be sure to use “I” statements. Telling someone they’ve done something wrong puts the blame on them — and they’ll likely get defensive, Segrin says.
If you’re at a loss, here are some expert-approved statements to help initiate the conversation:
- I see you’re eating dinner right now, but I wanted to talk to you about something. Is now a good time?
- Ever since we hung out last week, I haven’t stopped thinking about that comment you made about [X]. I wanted to talk to you about that because it’s been bothering me.
- Sorry I haven’t brought this up before, but I’d really like to talk about [X].
- I’ve noticed you [react a certain way] when I [do something]. From my perspective, it seems like…
Skills to use to make sure the conversation runs smoothly
There are many trust-building and relationship-strengthening strategies to employ even in the most difficult conversations, Yeomans says. Simply being receptive to the other person’s concerns promotes a culture of respect instead of aggression. “I’m always shocked when people don’t realize that when they are aggressive in a disagreement that other people respond with aggressiveness,” Yeomans says. “If you start off nice, people will take that cue from you.”
To signal receptiveness and promote productive conversations, Yeomans has developed a “receptiveness recipe.” Strategies include actively acknowledging the other person’s perspective, highlighting areas where you both agree, softening your claims by using language like “I think…” or “I see it this way…,” using positive statements such as “I think it’s helpful when…” instead of “You shouldn’t be doing this,” and sharing personal stories. Even when you disagree with a sibling’s view on how to care for your parents, it’s crucial to demonstrate you’ve actually listened to their argument (“I understand where you’re coming from”; “I see your point”), addressed common concerns (“I do agree that Mom needs extra support”), and avoided being too forceful when suggesting alternatives (“I think it would be helpful to find a part-time home aid; I’ve heard from friends in similar situations that their parents still had independence, but assistance when needed”). These tactics can be particularly helpful to have in your back pocket if a loved one approaches you with a thorny conversation you weren’t prepared for.
Don’t expect to persuade your conversation partner to totally see things your way. Instead, aim to learn more about how your loved one feels or views the situation and vice versa, Yeomans says. “I want to understand your perspective” or “I want to understand where you’re coming from” is more constructive than trying to strong-arm someone into changing their mind completely.
Continually check in with yourself and the other person throughout the discussion to weigh whether everyone feels comfortable continuing, Jackson says. Ask if they want to take a break or revisit at another time. If things are getting heated, suggest stepping away for a few minutes to get some air or picking up the conversation again in a few days.
Again, think about the conditions for when you’ll walk away from a combative person. If a line is crossed, you can say, “I can tell this is important to you, but I don’t really want to continue to talk about this right now.”
How to wrap up a difficult conversation
If the conversation reaches a point of resolution, first confirm with whomever you’re talking with that they, too, feel satisfied. “Never assume that you have an agreement with them,” Segrin says. Try asking, “Would you agree that tomorrow you’ll bring waste bags on your walk with your dog?” or “How comfortable are you with the plan to not discuss personal details about our relationship with friends anymore?” Give them the space to express their takeaways from the conversation. “Too many people have failed to wrap these up by just assuming I said my piece, everything’s going to magically fix itself — not really,” Segrin says. “Ask them explicitly, ‘Do you feel like we have come to an agreement about how this might change in the future and how comfortable you are with that?’ See if you’re going to get a buy-in from them.”
Show your appreciation for your conversation partner by thanking them for taking your concerns seriously, even if you didn’t come to an agreement, Wehrman says. (You can say, “I know we don’t see eye-to-eye on this, but I appreciate you letting me have a turn to talk.”)
Always remain focused on the future, Segrin says. Blame is retroactive and does nothing to change what already occurred. “If you want change, that’s a future orientation,” Segrin says. “So keep it on the future and don’t get carried away with pointing fingers about who’s responsible for what happened in the past.”