10 Strategies for Difficult Conversations

Every couple has topics that tend to lead to ‘difficult conversations.’  What I mean by a difficult conversation is one that’s neither constructive nor productive.  We all know those conversations that feel like opening up a wound again & again.  They just hurt and you’re left wondering, “what was the point of that interaction?”

What’s really the key for me in evaluating whether or not a conversation is constructive is whether or not you both feel more like a ‘team’ afterwards.  Regardless of whether or not you agree or come to a decision (if a decision is relevant), do you both feel more connected and understood at the end of the conversation?  That’s the litmus test.

Take a moment to reflect on what those ‘hot’ topics are in your current relationship.  If relevant, maybe ask your partner to list them independently.  Then compare lists.  Why do this?  When you are not in a challenging situation, it can be healthy to notice patterns and gain some clarity together.  That way, both of you can notice when you begin to discuss something in one of your ‘hot topic’ areas and have the opportunity to say “would you be willing to use our strategies for discussing this one?”

Parenting, spending money, sex, affection, quality time.  The topics are different for every relationship.

Below are 10 strategies for how to approach difficult conversations in ways that may lead to more connection and care.  Note: You and your partner can review this list together and discuss each one.  Each strategy is somewhat independent so you can pick and choose which ones to try and which ones to discard as ‘not for us.’  Every opportunity that you have to reinforce ‘the us’ in your relationship dynamics, and come from the perspective of ‘we’ in balance with ‘I’, the more it will serve you both.

  1. Check your resource levels.  Check in to make sure you are both resourced enough for the conversation:  Are you rested?  How is your energy level?  Do you have the time? Are you distracted?  How much else is on your plate?  Engaging in difficult conversations with care requires being resourced.  If either or both of you are less-than-fully resourced, chances are the conversation will be less caring & connecting than if you were resourced.  Simply, less resources translates to less creativity, curiosity, and resilience to the conversation.  Check your gas gauge before you embark on the trip.  Re-fuel if needed!
  2. Define the scope.  Often conversations become more difficult when they feel overwhelming to you or your partner.  From the start, discuss and agree on exactly the scope of what you plan to talk about.  And discuss and agree on what is out of scope.  “What to do about the kids” is too BIG.  Instead, select one manageable item such as “Let’s talk about our youngest daughter’s current challenges with her schoolwork.”  If one of you is raising the topic, the other partner can help define it, such as: “You’re proposing that we talk about our Amanda’s schoolwork.  Are you wanting me to be aware of your concerns?  Do you want to hear my experiences of the situation?  Is there a recommendation you want to propose?  Or something else?”
    If you are selecting to discuss an event in the not-too-recent past, establish an agreement about the purpose of revisiting it.  Is there something new to be gained?  Is there something unresolved?  If there is something unresolved, is it for one of you, or for both of you, and what is it?  Do you have mutual consent to go there?
  3. Establish groundrules.  Before you start the discussion, make promises to each other about compliance with mutually-agreed-upon groundrules.  Here is a good time to make requests before the conversation gets rolling.  These are mutual, for both of you two to decide together.  Once you have decided upon them for an initial conversation, you’ll have them as the starting point for future conversations.  Some ideas include:
    1. I will take care to use a kind tone of voice and volume.
    2. When either one of us wishes to stop for any reason, we will stop.  If we’re not finished, we’ll schedule a time to resume the conversation.
    3. No name-calling.
  4. Set a time limit. This one is so important I called it out separately from the ones immediately above.  Especially with difficult conversations, knowing when they will end is helpful.  “Okay, we’ll talk for 30 minutes.  That’s doable.”  Sometimes the ones that feel like they could go on forever are more painful.  You run out of gas.  Or the conversation changes topics because there is no sense of the constraint of time to reign it in.
  5. Set and share intentions.  Intentions are specific to how you wish to show up in the conversation.  This is your opportunity at the start of the conversation to share with your partner how you want to be with them.  For example: “I will stay curious about your experience and perspective.  I will speak to you in a kind way that reflects how much I care about you.  I will listen to you with all of my focus, putting other things aside for the time we have allotted.  I will give you the space to speak and will not talk over you.”
  6. Decide how to monitor.  Admittedly, this one can be tricky in practice …  With an agreed-upon scope, time limit, guidelines, and intentions, when emotions arise, sometimes those things go out the window.  Neither of you want to be in the role of the ‘conversation police’ so share that role.  Agree on a sign either one of you may use as a signal to the other.  It is helpful to be somewhat lighthearted & playful when considering this one.  Maybe it is touching your nose.  Maybe it’s waving your hand.  Pick something feels like a neutral gesture to both of you.  When either one of you raise this sign, it signals to the other that you perceive they may have overstepped one of your agreements for this conversation.  For example, you change the subject to something out of scope, and your partner waves their hand.  Or your partner talks over you, so you touch your nose.  The most important tip here is not to be judgmental in the noticing.  It just happened.  It just is.  Stick to (a) the facts of what you agreed, (b) what you just observed, and (c) a request.  Three sentences, such as:  “We agreed to no name-calling.  You just called me stubborn.  Would you be willing to restate that last part without calling me a name?”
  7. Start with an appreciation.  Before you dive into the topic, from the start it really helps to share an acknowledgement of something your partner did recently that contributed to your well-being.  “It really felt good to come downstairs to a clean kitchen this morning. Thank you for taking the lead on cleaning up last night.”, “I really loved the way you held me when we were waking up this morning.”, or “Thank you for listening to me when I shared that issue about work earlier this evening.  I felt more at ease when I felt heard by you.”  Whatever it is.  This approach places this upcoming conversation in the context of your broader relationship and reconnects you to the ways in which your partner contributes to your life.
    Note: Sharing appreciations is not a competition. Please do not judge your partner’s appreciation as being ‘less than yours’ or ‘not sufficient.’  Just let what your partner shared soak in as something that they recall that they valued (i.e., not everything, not the only thing, not the most important thing) .
  8. Practice noticing.  Practice noticing what’s going on with your bodily sensations.  Practice noticing what you see in your partner’s facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. Bring specific attention to these aspects of the conversation, in addition to what you are sharing and what you are hearing from your partner.  It takes practice to shift your attention across all three areas.  All of those inputs are valuable information about the feelings coming up in you and the feelings that may be coming up in your partner.  During the conversation, it is helpful to share them periodically starting with “I am noticing ____.”  For example, “I am noticing that when you just said that, I felt sadness.  I felt my shoulders collapse and tears well behind my eyes.”  Importantly, noticing is in the present moment.  (You would not notice what happened 10 minutes ago. That’s recollecting which is a different animal.)  Also, when noticing things about your partner, stick with what you noticed and hold them lightly as you check them out with them, such as “When I just said that, I noticed your eyes widen.  Am I picking up on anything?  It looked like it might be surprise.  Is that guess on target or are you feeling something else right now?”
  9. Offer empathy.  When one of you shows upset, offer empathy.  Empathy is trying to understand what it is like to be the other person.  Sharing empathy can feel very connecting & caring.  The basic steps are to listen carefully for what is most important to the other person.  Then share it with them as a guess.  Try the best you can.  It does not matter if  your guess is accurate.  The gift of empathy happens in the process of trying to understand the experience of your partner.  Guesses can start with “So for you, what I am guessing is most important is ____” or “I am getting a sense that you value ____”.
  10. Engage a professional.  If after trying some or all of these strategies a few times with limited success, you may want to discuss engaging a professional like me to be a neutral third party to help you navigate these difficult conversations.  It will help you from hurting each other repeatedly, deepening the ruts of unsuccessful strategies.  It will help you get unstuck from the recurring arguments that leave you both feeling drained, disconnected, and deflated.  You’ll be supported as you practice these and other skills.  With sufficient practice, you’ll no longer require support, and you’ll integrate them naturally into your day-to-day interactions.

What do you think of these 10?  Try them on with your partner.  See what works for you.  Stay curious.  Be caring.  Be playful.  Customize them together.  Discard what does not work for you both.  Add your own strategies to them.

Please share your thoughts on these strategies and your experiences with difficult conversation via the comments section below.

I wish more ease and connection for you and your partner.