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Difficult Conversations—III  

I have been writing about difficult conversations, why they are difficult, and which ones to choose to have and which to leave alone. This month we start to look at how to have the conversations in a productive manner. Having difficult conversations in a poor manner can, at times, have a worse impact than not having the conversations at all – so it is important to have them well.

One way of thinking about difficult conversations is that there are generally three different sets of goals involved in the conversation, though only one is thought of. The first, the most obvious, is the topic of the conversation. If it bothers you that your partner often consults their parents about financial matters before talking to you, that is the topic of the conversation. You want them to know it upsets you and would like them to stop.

The other two goals of the conversation are identity goals and relationship goals. Part of why this issue is important to you has to do with the way you see yourself. It may be that being part of a couple that sees each other as their primary resource and source of consultation is important. Or it may be that you see yourself as being very financially knowledgeable and your partner asking others advice before yours challenges that image. The relationship goal is generally about keeping the connection in the relationship sound. It could simply be wanting to change the relationship so it is easier to feel good about it, or it could be something needs to happen to live up to your vision of how you see the relationship. The latter would really be similar to the personal identity of being in a relationship where you see each other as a primary resource.

When talking about difficult issues it is useful to keep these three goals in mind. It is important to take into account how the issue affects the identity of your partner and how the issue impacts the relationship. Quite frankly, you should  attend to the emotional quality of the relationship in the tone that the conversation takes. If it descends into name calling or other destructive forms of communication, it will damage the relationship.

It is imperative to understand the significance of these issues to your partner, and them to understand yours, to have a productive conversation. This can be difficult as it raises the potential for all the emotional issues that make conversations difficult in the first place (see the February newsletter). Making a practice of slowing down the conversation and focusing on understanding each other’s perspective and personal investment in the issue makes the conversation much easier.

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