Five Tips for Difficult Conversations

By: Emily Bemmer 

We’ve all had times we know we ought to say something, but we don’t, because it feels anxiety provoking, or we don’t know where to start!

When there is something difficult we need to talk about, saying nothing may be simpler and easier in the short term, but in the long term we can begin to feel stuck in unhealthy patterns of relating. Bitterness and resentment can build as we haven’t been able to communicate what we feel or what we need. We need to be able to communicate effectively!

Effective communication is at the heart of every positive relationship – being able to speak and be understood, and to connect with others as they share. Below are some helpful principles for building your skills and effectiveness in assertive communication.

1) Prepare Ahead to Communicate Effectively

Before you meet with someone, think beforehand what it is that you’d like to say. Plan a time where you’re unlikely to be interrupted and you (and those you’re speaking with) are most likely to be in a calm, non-distracted state.

2) Stay Calm – And Listen!

Staying calm is one of the most critical keys to effective communication. Defensiveness, anger or heightened emotions can make make it difficult to express ourselves, but also impedes our capacity to genuinely listen to the perspective of the other person. Acknowledging that two people can hold different (but valid!) perspectives at the same time, and reminding yourself of why you’re having the conversation can help to keep you feeling calm. If you start to become upset or feel like you’re not responding calmly, it can be best to delay the rest of the conversation for a later time.

3) Stick to Facts First

For effective communication, when you first raise a topic with someone –  build a shared understanding of the facts and details of a situation. This is important as it allows you to start on the same page (e.g. “Yes, we did agree that I would send you the documents by Friday), or you can easily identify miscommunications and accidents at the earliest opportunity (e.g. “When I said Friday, I meant next Friday (28th), not this Friday” or “Sorry, you mustn’t have received my email suggesting an extension“.)

4) Make Room for Emotions and Opinions with ‘I Statements’

Once you’ve been able to agree on the facts and details of the event or topic of discussion, then you can share how you feel, what you think about it, or why the topic is important to you. It is best to use ‘I statements’, like “I feel disappointed that I wasn’t informed…” or “I have worked hard on this project…” rather than using ‘You statements’. Comments like “You should have…” or “why wouldn’t you…” can lead others to feel defensive and less likely to want to continue the conversation or engage with your point of view.

When we use ‘I statements’, we also encourage others to reciprocate in sharing their view. This allows us understand the situation from their perspective as well.

5) Have Some Ideas for ‘What Next’

Most people are able to effectively communicate the details of a problem and why it matters to them. However, it’s easy to miss discussing what should happen next, or what could bring resolution. People can’t read minds, so it can be unclear whether you want an apology, a new plan for the future, intervention from a third party, or a simple acknowledgement of how you feel. When you articulate what you think would be helpful, and are curious about the other person’s suggestions, you’re in the best position to find a helpful outcome. Always seek resolutions that are win-win (keeping in mind both your own needs, and the needs of the other person) and be willing to hear their suggestions for moving ahead.

Final Thoughts

Effective Communication with others is an area you can always grow and improve in – so be patient with yourself and with others as you navigate natural miscommunications,  and seek to build clearer expectations and stronger relationships with those you interact with.


Article supplied with thanks to The Centre for Effective Living.

About the Author: Emily Bemmer is a psychologist who has worked in the areas of depression, anxiety, emotional regulation, life transitions, social skills, and family dynamics.

Feature image: Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash 

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