Sometimes we want to initiate a difficult conversation with someone we care about–a friend, partner, or family member. We want the other person to know our thoughts regarding an issue we feel strongly about, but we’re concerned that bringing up the subject will precipitate a conflict between us. For example, we want to tell him that his words or actions have been hurtful to us; or we see in him a pattern of self-destructive behavior that concerns us; or we want to express an opinion that is contrary to his.
In these and other examples, the subject is difficult because we are expecting a negative reaction from the other person. We are telling her something that she probably doesn’t want to hear.
What is the best way to begin a conversation like this? First, ask the person if this is a good time to talk. When she gives you permission to speak, she is preparing to listen. The question itself hints that the subject you want to raise carries some weight for you.
Second, come right to the point. Prepare this statement in advance, and keep it to one short sentence. For example, “I didn’t like it when you made fun of me in front of my friends,” or “I’m concerned about your drinking,” or “I’ve decided to vote for….”
Third, if he does react defensively, be quiet and listen. Prepare for this part, too. You may feel compelled to explain or justify your opening statement, but this is not the time for that. If you talk, your words will be wasted because he will not listen. He will be reacting to what he has just heard from you. Allow him to talk (or be silent if he is the pondering type). If he asks you a “baiting” question, such as “How can you say that?”, don’t answer it.
During this phase of the conversation, go over to his side of the bridge. Make a sincere effort to understand his perspective. This does not mean that you agree with him, only that you care enough to pay attention.
Fourth, once the other person settles down a little, tell her that you realize how hard this conversation is for her. You could also say that it’s hard for you, too.
Eventually, the tension between you will ease and you will be able to expand on your opening statement. It’s best to wait for a sincere question (not an angry one) from the other person before you begin. If you feel like you’ve waited long enough and she still hasn’t asked about your perspective, ask her if you could tell her more about what you’re thinking. If she says yes, go ahead. If she says no, or doesn’t respond to your request, she still isn’t ready to listen to you and you will need to wait a while longer before you have your say.
We all need to talk about difficult subjects from time to time. Following this guideline will help you to navigate these conversations with dignity, strength, and compassion.
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