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Difficult Conversations—IV  

I would like to end the series on having difficult conversations with some practical suggestions. The first of these is to make sure you know what your goal is. If the conversation is worth having you should be looking for something to be different at the end of it. This might just be that you want your partner to hear something important about you or understand your feelings about something, or it might be that you want something to be different. Knowing what outcome you are looking for will make it easier to guide yourself in the conversation.

Secondly, try to put yourself in your partner’s shoes and think about how they may feel about and react in the conversation. If you are asking for some change on their part, try to understand how that might impact them. Remembering that one of the things that makes conversations difficult is when they seem to impact someone’s identity (see last month’s newsletter), think through how your partner might feel about themselves, or think you feel about them, while having the conversation.

Third, be soft in your conversation, especially as you start it up. “Softened startup” is one of the skills that helps keep difficult conversations from deteriorating into conflict. The most basic level of this is to not start or have a difficult conversation while you are angry. Anger will make it difficult to manage your own feelings and reactions. Softening is also about framing things in a way that take away blame. It is better to focus on yourself, your feelings, and your experience than it is to focus on your partner’s behavior. If you are asking for some kind of change, don’t start with a focus on your partner’s behavior but instead by talking about your experience and your feelings. If you would like your partner to initiate more conversations or be more affectionate, you would be better off starting with your feelings of loneliness or disconnection than telling your partner they aren’t affectionate enough. You should then follow with what you would like rather than focusing on what you don’t like.

Finally, it is important to stay focused. Often, when conversations get difficult they roam away from the topic at hand to other similar issues or other problematic issues. This is usually the result of defensiveness, which is pretty natural when you feel attacked or threatened, but gets in the way of conversations leading to productive outcomes. Avoid being defensive yourself. Continually remind yourself to stay focused on your goal. If you experience your partner as being defensive, try to put yourself in their shoes and understand their experience and feelings. Acknowledging those feelings may be helpful. You can reaffirm that you aren’t trying to attack and be critical, but just achieve a different experience for yourself. And above all, try to be soft.