-- Anonymous August 2013
So this question not only comes up in most therapy experiences, but also on a daily basis for most people. If someone is complaining or expressing frustration about a relationship, there is probably a conversation that hasn't been had, that needs to be had.
Relationships are work. Relationships are fun when things are going well. Maybe that’s why it’s difficult to have a conversation that may lead to a disagreement, argument, or even a breakup. At some level, there is fear and anxiety about what might happen if avoided issues are brought to attention. When a relationship seems to be going well, it takes a lot of courage to discuss an issue that may lead to conflict.
So how do you have a difficult conversation with a loved one? Here are a few things to consider.
Imagine your partner’s emotional reaction. Recognize why you feel the conversation will be difficult. Try to imagine how your partner might react. If you think they will respond with anger and defensiveness, then try to start the conversation by saying you are not trying to cause hurt or anger (or any negative emotion). If your partner expresses hurt or anger, then apologize and repeat that your intent is not to hurt but to better a situation.
Emphasize care and concern. Clarify that you are bringing this issue to attention because you care about the other person, and how certain actions impact your partner and you. Reiterate that you are initiating this conversation out of care and love, and that the conversation is needed for change; change that would benefit your partner and the relationship.
Find a moment of empathy. Recognize how you feel. Then find an experience where your partner felt the same way. Make a connection between the two. Let’s say you are frustrated by your partner’s pattern of starting but not finishing a task. With that, let’s say your kids have a tendency to not put their toys away after playing and it’s very frustrating for your partner. Then you could say, “You know how you feel when the kids leave a mess of toys, that’s how I feel when you start something and then don’t finish it.” Connecting an emotion with your message increases the impact of your message.
Context and comfort. Understand your partner. If your partner prefers to talk privately, then have a private conversation. If they are more comfortable knowing ahead of time that a serious conversation is needed, then give them a heads up. Providing a familiar environment is a great way to give your partner a sense of control and to show that you are attune to their feelings.
I usually do not recommend this, but if they are more comfortable communicating via email, then try initiating the conversation via email. Again, I don’t recommend having an email conversation instead of a face-to-face conversation, but for some it’s an easier, more comfortable way to express thoughts and absorb information. You have a better chance of a productive conversation if both people are in a relaxed mindset.
Praise. Lastly, appreciate your partner for being open to a difficult conversation. Even if an issue isn't resolved, praising your partner's effort of being attentive and listening to your feelings will make future conversations smoother and hopefully productive. A simple “thanks for listening” can go a long way.
Although scary, these are the type of conversations that can strengthen your relationship. Openness about one’s feelings in a relationship sets clear and healthy boundaries for you and your partner. You can read more about boundaries here.
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