Health & Wellness

Handling Difficult Conversations

Most of us know that good communication is key to healthy relationships.

But sometimes, a difficult conversation can derail a relationship. We have long histories with our families, so we tend to react more strongly with them than we might with strangers or friends. How can we navigate tough talks with loved ones, without going off the rails? We called on Sheppard Pratt social worker and family therapist, Insley Schaden, LCSW-C, to give us some tips.

Establish ground rules for “fair fighting.” Remember, these are people you love and care about. 

  • Don’t curse, degrade, or yell, even when emotions are heightened. Avoid accusations, attacks, or placing blame. Be open to why the problem has arisen—and you might see the path to a solution more clearly.
  • Don’t throw the kitchen sink at someone. Identify the issue at hand, and don’t let the conversation snowball into every problem you’ve ever faced with this person. Focus on one issue at a time to keep the conversation productive.
  • Remember the other person has a unique perspective and set of feelings too. Pause, take a deep breath, and try to see your concerns from their point of view. 
  • Are there any rules your family might add?

Practice assertive communication and know your goals. Assertive communication is:

  • Expressing your point of view clearly and directly, while still respecting others
  • Knowing what you want to get out of the conversation. 
  • Expressing your needs and concerns. 
  • Acknowledging the feelings and needs of the other person. 

But planning isn’t always possible.

Spontaneous, explosive conversations happen. Difficult conversations can also be planned and prepared for. 

If a conversation feels explosive, focus first on calming the emotional state. Slow down. Pause. Breathe. Once you are both in an approachable state, focus on the simplest goals of the conversation.

Be honest – but you don’t have to share every detail in the opening conversation.

It is important to be upfront and honest no matter who you are in conversation with. That said, difficult news or difficult topics can be broached over a series of conversations. Every detail does not need to be shared at once. It is also important to be able to say, “I don’t know.” Don’t make promises you may not be able to keep. 

Be mindful of who you are talking to. If talking to peers, more straightforward details may be appropriate. If talking to children, you may feel the need to be more guarded. Remember that kids sometimes fill in the gaps when they lack information—and that can be even scarier for them. Try asking them what questions they have and check in to make sure they’re understanding.  Let your loved one feel heard and prevent overwhelming them by letting them guide the depth or length of a given conversation.

Validating someone’s feelings doesn’t mean agreeing with them. It means recognizing the humanity in them and seeing where they are coming from. Is there a way that you can acknowledge why they may feel the way they do, without addressing who is right or wrong? Finding common ground can also be a powerful way to connect during an argument. Remember that your loved one is so much more than the problem or disagreement at hand. 

Put a cap on the conversation from the beginning. Set a timer. If you haven’t reached a solution when that timer goes off, take a break. Come back to the conversation after a good night’s sleep. Sometimes a longer conversation can become circular and frustrating. And remember, not all problems can be solved immediately.

How do you know when you need a professional? 

A few instances where it could be a good idea to seek help from a professional might include:

  • If you know something is wrong, but need help identifying the problem
  • If an argument is recurrent—you come back to it over and over again without making progress
  • If there are safety issues due to the topic