conversation, communication

Communication Strategies That Really Work for Difficult Conversations

Talking with the people you care about most seems like something that should come easily.  And sometimes it does.  Sometimes the conversations feel relaxed, warm, and productive.  But at other times talking about something significant with the people we love feels like a daunting task.  Perhaps you end up spiraling around the same conversation that goes nowhere and leaves everyone feeling frustrated.  This is when learning a few effective communication strategies will come in handy.

These communication strategies are helpful whether you’re talking with people you are closest to like your spouse, parents, siblings, good friends, or children.  And this approach is most helpful when you’re talking about a topic that is emotionally intense or just plain difficult.  Following these strategies will give yourself the best possible chance of having a more satisfying conversation that builds connection in your relationships.

Effective Communication Strategies

Choose Good Timing.  Choosing a good time to talk about an important topic is the first key to success.  Think about the other person in this conversation.  When would he/she be most open, alert, and able to focus?  Knowing yourself and this other person as well as you do, you’ll know there are certainly bad times to bring up a difficult conversation.  For example, you don’t want to wait until the wee hours of the night when you’re both exhausted and falling asleep.  Nor would you want to start a conversation when there are distractions or time pressures.  So choose a time when you are both able to be present and give this conversation the room it deserves.

Maintain Calm.  We often start a difficult conversation when we’re emotionally and physically revved up about something.  In fact, we’re moved to address the topic precisely because it’s such an emotionally intense issue.  But our brains are simply not good at processing conversation when we’re flooded with feelings.  Emotional flooding causes the frontal lobe of our brain to quiet which makes it difficult for us to take in new information, listen effectively, and process our thoughts.  We are simply terrible listeners when we’re flooded.

So try to calm yourself so that you’re only moderately revved up when starting a difficult conversation.  And allow yourself and the other person permission to take a break when emotions rise during the conversation.  This means you’ll need to be in tune with your own signs of emotional flooding.  Notice if you tend to talk louder or clench your fists or pace when you’re getting really upset.  And use these behaviors as signs that it’s time for a little time out to calm down.  Then really allow yourself to calm.  This may mean going for a walk, taking some deep breaths, exercising, or distracting yourself with another activity.  Just make certain to agree to return to this conversation at a mutually agreeable time when you are both ready again.

Find the Mutual Goal.  In every difficult conversation there is a mutual goal beneath the surface.  Try to identify something you and the other person would both agree is important.  It may be something as simple as the fat that you both want to feel closer or more in sync or better able to resolve a plan.  At the very core, it’s usually safe to say that you both want to feel understood.  Stating this mutual goal at the beginning of the conversation helps set you both on the same team.  You want to feel like you’re working together on an issue that you share.  So neither person is wholly responsible for the issue at hand.  This helps reduce defensiveness and blaming, which are both harmful to productive communication.

Describe Your Feelings and Needs.  It’s important for you to clarify the most important message you want to share in this conversation.  This begins by describing how you’re feeling about the situation and what you need from the other person.  It helps to be specific about when this feelings comes up so that the other person can understand it.  So the recipe is to say “I FEEL…WHEN…AND I NEED.”  For example, you might say, “I feel frustrated when you make plans without consulting me and I need you to check in with me before you commit us to anything.”  This strategy is much softer than criticizing the other person which tends to lead to a defensive response.  The other person may not agree he/she made plans without consulting you, but no one can disagree with your feelings.  We each have a right to our feelings and perspectives.

Focus on Listening.  Both people in a conversation want to be heard and understood.  In order to accomplish this, both people also need to be willing to listen.  It’s very effective to agree at the beginning of the conversation that you want to take turns speaking and listening.  So while one person is describing his/her experience, the other is solely focused on listening.  And the listener must find a way to let the speaker know he/she is correctly heard.  This important strategy involves summarize and/or validating the other’s feelings and perceptions.  It’s important to note that you do not need to agree with what the other person says in order to validate their perspective.  An effective listening comment sounds something like, “I can see how you would be really frustrated in that situation.”

The goal of effective listening is to ensure the speaker feels heard and understood for his/her own experience.  This builds security in a relationship and allows both people to move through the difficult feelings.  When our feelings are not understood and validated, we tend to hold onto them even more fiercely and end up in a stalemate.  More advanced listening may involve asking questions to understand why this topic is so important to the other person, whether it’s related to other concerns, fears, or history.

Manage Expectations.  The goal of effective communication about a difficult topic is really to understand one another’s perspective.  You may not come to a specific resolution after one conversation.  And it’s important to allow yourselves to disagree about a topic without feeling like the conversation was a failure.  Really important topics typically need to be revisited again and again.  In intimate relationships, it is typical that a majority of arguments are unresolvable in that the topics will continue to resurface again and again.  This is not a sign of an unhealthy relationship.  It’s all about how you listen and support one another as you work through the difficult topics.

Notice Body Language.  Communication is more than the words we say.  Think of all the messages we absorb through someone’s tone of voice, eye contact, body posture, tears, and sighing.  To send a clear message, our non-verbal communication must match our verbal communication.  Often we send mixed messages when these do not sync up.  For example, someone who says “I love you” with arms crossed and a roll of the eyes sends a completely different message from someone who says “I love you” while leaning forward and making eye contact.  So be aware of the messages you’re sending through these non-verbal routes and try to match them up with the words you’re speaking.

Seek Help.  If your conversations continue to result in greater distance and hurt, it may be time to seek outside help.  A skilled couples or family therapist can help you both practice effective communication skills.  Sometimes it’s helpful to have an impartial third party listening, supporting, and guiding you to ensure everyone feels heard and understood.

Written by Suzanne Smith, Ph.D. for the Lakefront Psychology Blog. If you are interested in more original articles about mental health, postpartum issues, wellness, relationships, and parenting, please subscribe to the blog using the button below. If you are interested in scheduling an appointment with Dr. Smith, please contact Lakefront Psychology at 216-870-9816.

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