- How to Talk to Someone About A Difficult
- by Edel Jarboe
Do you need to talk to a friend,
a co-worker, or your spouse about a difficult subject? Is it
causing you a lot of stress and anxiety? You are not alone. Everyone
dreads conversations where the emotional and psychological stakes
are high. But it is possible to have an honest, productive, and
less stressful heart to heart.
Stacy: "You are so stuck up! You are always putting
me down in front of everyone. Did you have to tell Jake and Luann
that I cut my own hair? You know money is a little tight for
me right now."
Annabelle: Your hair looks terrible. Maybe that's
why you haven't had a date in 6 months."
Stacy: " I don't think it's any of your business."
Annabelle: "Fine. I'm leaving now. Are you coming?"
Stacy: "No, I think I need to trim my bangs!"
Stick to the Facts
Avoid getting bogged down in
too many details, instead focus on the substance of what happened.
Establish a fact pattern of who did what and how you got to where
you are now. How would a neutral, third-party describe the situation?
How do you feel?
Our feelings often get mixed
up in our judgements of another person's behavior. Negatively
describing a person's actions immediately puts them on the defensive
and they are more likely to stop listening and counter with an
attack of their own. This is a definite no-no when it comes to
difficult conversations. It is much more effective to focus on
how their actions made you feel instead of labeling their actions.
In other words, replace the phrase, "You are so......"
with the phrase, "When you do X, it makes me feel..."
Why do you feel this way?
Perhaps you feel vulnerable or
defensive because some aspect
of your self-image might be under attack. Identify which aspect
of your self-image feels threatened. Is it your ability to make
money? Your ability to sustain a healthy love relationship? Do
you see yourself as a nice person who hates to put your foot
down? Is it a trust issue? Figuring out where the pain or distress
is coming from helps you to be more objective. And by being able
to view the situation in a calmer and more rational manner, you
are able to act on the situation instead of just reacting to
What is the purpose of the
What do you want this conversation
to accomplish? Do you
want an apology? Do you need closure? Or are you trying to
solve a problem? Deciding which outcome you are seeking will
help you stay focused. We all know how easy it is to get
sidetracked in a conversation, and this tendency is even more
likely to occur when we are discussing emotion-laden matters.
Think about the situation from
the other person's point of view. Again, this will help you to
be more objective. Get their feedback. Ask, "How do you
see the situation?" Treating the conversation as a mission
for understanding can also help start the conversation and will
go a long way towards making it a two-way one.
Stacy: "Do you realize that I feel hurt and embarrassed
you draw attention to my money problems?"
Annabelle: "I didn't think it was that big
of a deal to you. You're always telling me that things are tight."
Stacy: "But I don't want the whole world to know.
I only told you because I trusted you."
Annabelle: "I'm sorry. I won't do it in the
future. Let me make it up to you. How about I treat you to a
Stacy: "Apology accepted. Just let me get my jacket."
The Last Word
Give the other person the benefit
of the doubt. Perhaps it hasn't even occurred to them that their
behavior is causing you pain or distress. And, once you begin
to talk, don't monopolize the conversation. You won't accomplish
anything by making the other person feel as if they are being
taken to task. Finally, if a difficult conversation doesn't go
as well as you'd hoped, don't dwell on it. How you handle a conflict
is more important than the conflict itself. This is called character.
Copyright © 1999 by Edel
Jarboe. All Rights Reserved.