By: Heather Spurrell
It’s 5:30 am. Your alarm goes off to start another day. You rub your face and try to wake up after a restless night of not-so-restful-sleep. The weight of what’s ahead of you at work descends on you. You drag yourself out of bed and down the stairs to get your first cup of life-giving coffee. As you go, you’re thinking about where you’re going to start when you get to the office.
You walk into the kitchen and smell the fresh brew percolating. You blearily grab a mug, pour yourself some of the good stuff and move the fridge. The light comes on a little too bright when you open the door. You squint and reach to grab the milk. As you pick it up you notice that it’s unusually light.
You close your eyes, take a deep breath, hoping you’re mistaken, and tip the carton upside down over your mug. As expected only a few drops drip into your mug creating tiny white drop marks on the warm brown liquid… and you’re immediately wide-awake and furious. Your partner has once again used all the milk and not replaced it.
Your heart beats faster and you feel your blood pressure rise. You actually stop, put down the carton, and sigh with exasperation and defeat. You’ve had this conversation (or others like it) a million times and it never makes much of a difference. You know if you raise this topic again, it’ll just turn into a fight and get you nowhere. You’ll just stop talking for a few days and then things will go back to normal until the next time.
You’re sick of the cycle, but you don’t know how to have a conversation that would change this pattern. You’re at a loss… wouldn’t it be great if there were instructions to shift this seemingly hopeless situation to something better?
Smart Guidelines For Starting Tough Conversations
Did you know that the way a discussion starts is the same way it will end 94% of the time?
According to Dr. John Gottman’s research how a conversation starts will often determine how it ends and therefore it’s
research how a conversation starts will often determine how it ends and therefore it’s
Of course, starting a (potentially) difficult conversation is hard – we all know that. Even if you know what you want to say, figuring out how to say it can often be a challenge. We live in a world where most people avoid conflict like the plague; determining how to say what you need is no easy task.
Let’s change that, shall we? In this article, we’re going to look at a clear structure – 3 components – that will create better communication for you. The 3 components are:
- Before You Say Anything – what to do before you open your mouth
- How To Start the Conversation – what to actually say
- End On A High Note – how to complete the conversation powerfully
Let me be clear, I’m not suggesting this will make conflict a thing of the past or that’ll be easy. I am saying if you want to feel connection and harmony in your relationship, these three components
The Art Of Tough Conversations
Think about the last time someone said to you: “We need to talk”. How did you instantly feel when they finished speaking? Anxious? Panicky? Defensive? Angry? Immediately questioning what you did wrong, how are you going to explain it, and make things better?
What about when you think about talking to your partner about something that could potentially result in a conflict? How do you feel then? The same?
That’s usually what happens for most of us. Given that how you start a conversation is most likely how it will end, we’re going to start by looking at how to frame this type of conversation and some key things you need to think about before you start.
Traditionally the approach has been to bite the bullet and dive right in by saying something like:
- “We need to talk.” OR
- “When you _____ I feel like _____.” OR
- “I feel like _______ when you _______.”
No matter what your tone of voice, when you start a conversation with those phrases you’ll put the other person on defense. Not a great start for what is likely an important topic for you.
Before You Say Anything – Set Your Mindset:
Once you decide to have a conversation, people generally choose one of two approaches:
- Get it over with as quickly as possible, you blurt it out and hope for the best
- Over-think and over-analyze, and then script out the conversation in your head
By using either of those approaches you’re making the process much more complicated and challenging than necessary.
What to do instead?
Spend time before you have the conversation setting an intention:
- How do I want to feel at the end of this?
- How do I want the other person to feel?
- What is most important for me here?
- What do I need to do, to have this conversation end in a positive way?
- Who do I need to BE to have this conversation end in a positive way?
For example, if you set the intention of ‘partnership’ or ‘everybody wins’ or ‘connection’ before you open your mouth, you’ll approach the conversation way differently than if your intention is to show your partner that once again they were an inconsiderate jerk, you’re right and they’re waaaaay in the wrong.
With the example of everybody wins as an intention, you will say and do things differently. Being angry and critical will not have everybody win; they’ll feel awful and defensive and you’ll be no further ahead with the issue. Being calm, open, and collaborative will have you ask different questions and listen to the answers differently. Maybe even from a problemsolving perspective rather than a blame perspective. What a difference that would make!
How you show up to the conversation will have a HUGE impact on the outcome.
Starting the Conversation – What Do You Say?
If you’re not going to say “we need to talk” what do you say instead? Dr. John Gottman’s research has shown that using a ‘soft startup’ approach can significantly change the outcome of a conversation.
Coupling that with telling them why you want to have the conversation with them, what they mean to you, or what you’re committed to by the end of the conversation, frees them up to actually participate in the conversation with you instead of being on the defensive. Essentially it puts you both on the same side, looking at the problem together rather than in opposing corners with your dukes up.
Here’s an example:
“Hey Hon, there’s something on my mind that I want to talk about.
Can you see how language like that would create a totally different conversation than the “we need to talk” strategy”? You want to talk to your partner about the milk situation and you’ve set the intention of ‘creating deeper connection and team.’ When you stand in that space – connection
Things To Remember:
- Don’t blame – you can lodge your complaint in the conversation but don’t start off with blaming and accusation.
- Talk about you not them – talk about how you’re feeling rather than what they’re doing or not doing.
- Talk about what’s happening rather than accusing or judging – “There was no milk left in the fridge this morning” will have a different impact than “you used all the milk again.”
- Be polite and appreciative – your partner is likely not being a jerk on purpose. Talking to them about things they do right and what you appreciate about them will make a difference here too.
End On a High Note – Complete Powerfully
Something that often happens in conversations like this, even when things stay calm and collaborative, is that they don’t get complete. Often you’ll walk away from the conversation thinking you’re both on the same page without getting clarification about that.
It can occur that since you risked having the tough conversation in the first place all the heavy lifting was done. That is most likely not the case. Clearly restating what came out of the conversation and any new agreements that were created is a critical part of changing the behaviour and outcome in the future.
Another factor in ending on a high note is to ensure both you and your partner feel acknowledged and heard. Checking back in before you walk away to make sure everyone is ok is really important. If there’s still something that hasn’t been worked out it will just fester and haunt you in the future.
Tough Conversations – Not As Ugly As You Thought!
You’re obviously reading this because you’re relationship is important to you. You’re committed to learning about how to communicate more effectively – even on the tough or touchy topics! It’s ok if you feel weird and awkward when you first start to apply these guidelines.
Part of the awkwardness will be because you’re trying something new and anything new feels weird and awkward. Part of the awkwardness will come from the fact that tough conversations are tough. In fact they may always feel a little awkward for you. With practice you’ll get better!
Better Communication Isn’t Easy, and It’s Worth Your Time & Attention.
This is only a high-level view of what it takes to be effective with your communication during contentious topics. Learning how to better communicate with those people that are most important to you takes something! It’s outside the norm of what most people take on in life and clearly that’s something you’re interested in!
I’d love to support you in expanding yourself in that! Click here to receive weekly conversations about making a difference in your life where it really matters!