Tough Talks: How To Productively Have Emotionally Difficult Conversations

Many of us are too aware of the introductory words used for tough and emotionally difficult conversations:

“We need to talk.” or “Hey, do you have a minute? I’ve been meaning to speak to you about something…”

We have all experienced difficult emotions like tension, anxiety, and fear, before a challenging conversation. As a result, many people tend to either avoid challenging conversations or use aggression during them. Confrontation is often uncomfortable and creates an immediate dissonance when it occurs. An emotional response can have more control over the direction of a conversation than the intended topic of the conversation. Sometimes, we try to combat conflict with defensive rebuttals to “protect” ourselves from what we think might happen (eg. “It wasn’t me!” or “Before you even start….”).

We may also find ourselves in the “fight, flight, or freeze” mode which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to rationally solve the conflict. These avoidant “defense mechanisms” mask our primary feelings of;  guilt, shame, fear, disrespect, etc. Essentially, this results in a catastrophe in our mind, which causes us to overreact which likely results in a negative outcome. Although these feelings are uncomfortable, it is healthy to acknowledge and confront them rather than avoid them.

Many people avoid direct communication because they fear potential conflict and choose avoidance to combat the seriousness of the conversation. Humor, sarcasm, and disregard are typical avoidant reactions that “protect” people from tough topics. It is important to note that this will only provide temporary relief and likely lead to long-term consequences. 

Here are 7 ways to mindfully master an emotionally difficult conversation:

  1. Allow yourself to be vulnerable during these moments. 
  2. Pause, take a breath, so you can rationally solve the problem.
  3. Listen attentively, validate the speaker by giving them your undivided attention and by utilizing empathy.
  4. Try not to take any suggestions or criticisms personally, notice your feelings and accept responsibility. Make a mental list of what you’re feeling. 
  5. Communicate your emotions using I statements
  6. Compromise, sometimes you just need to agree to disagree.
  7. Ask questions and show the other person that you care by asking for clarification when necessary.

Removing defensiveness from confrontation and introducing these 7 steps can be really useful in maintaining relationships with people with diverse perspectives. Acknowledging that our way isn’t always the only way is imperative in keeping our relationships healthy. Use these strategies to master your emotionally difficult conversation.

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