How to Speak to Your Partner About Difficult Topics
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Every once in a while, in our intimate relationships, things can come up that are difficult for you to talk about with your partner(s). Oftentimes, the subjects that are hardest to discuss tend to be the ones we need to get off our chest the most. For starters, here are a few things to avoid doing when approaching these conversations:
- Don’t assume you already know all that you need to know.You may be surprised to hear that your partner’s perspective is different from what you imagined.
- Don’t hide your feelings. If you smother them they can erupt in an unhealthy way later on.
- Don’t ignore your own needs in favor of your partner’s wants.
Steps of Having a Difficult Conversation
It is important to understand your thoughts and opinions on the situation before the exchange. This is so that you avoid contradicting yourself or confusing the situation enough that misunderstandings arise, potentially making the situation worse. Once you’re able to coherently describe your own point of view, the trajectory of the conversation may look something like this:
- Allow your partner time to mentally prepare for the conversation by giving them a heads-up. Let them know ahead of time that you would like to discuss your feelings about [X] and decide on a time that works for both parties.
- At the beginning of the conversation, come to a mutual understanding of what happened or what the topic of conversation is.
- Communicate what feelings were brought up by the situation. Make sure each party has a chance to share their perspective.
- Problem-solve, work together, strategize, and/or compromise so that you can move forward towards a better space with each other. A crucial part of this is accepting the part you played in contributing to the conflict.
Remember to Practice Empathy
When having a difficult conversation with someone you care about, the priority should be remaining open, compassionate, and genuine. Being respectful and vulnerable typically leads to being met with respect and vulnerability in return. Before approaching a subject that you feel passionate about, take a deep breath and be intentional about what you say.. If you’re practicing empathy, you’re more likely to react to your partner’s feelings with curiosity.Showing this kind of interest for their feelings and perspectives can go a long way.
TIP: If you have trouble remaining neutral, try imagining what someone outside of your relationship would think of your situation. Remember that a neutral third party would consider both viewpoints as equally important.
Be an Active Listener
Dedicate your energy to listening and understanding what your partner is saying rather than prepping your next argument/rebuttal, or carefully arranging the wording of what you’re going to say next. Tough conversations rarely go as planned, so dedicating time to planning what you’ll say isn’t the best use of your energy. If active listening is difficult for you, you could practice reciting what your understanding is of what you’ve just been told. This way you’re avoiding misunderstandings and you’re letting your partner know that they are being heard and you care to hear their side.
Stay Mindful of Your Tone
Remain respectful, especially if you’re living within a more conflict-avoidant culture or volatile environment, but make sure you’re getting to the point so that the conversation can be as productive as possible. It’s somewhat of a balancing act trying to get across a point that you’re passionate about without letting said passion cloud your tone and attitude. If you tend to get frustrated when you feel like you may be misunderstood you could check to see if your partner is being an active listener by asking them to repeat what they understood of what you just said.
TIP: Instead of using the “[good news] but [bad news]” approach, try flipping it so that your partner is left with a more positive ending rather than a negative one. For example, instead of saying “I like that shirt but I don’t love it with those pants”, try saying something more like “This outfit isn’t my favorite but I really like that shirt.” This rearrangement is more impactful with more serious topics of conversation.
Take the time you need to process your emotions and get your thoughts in order, but don’t put off having the conversation. The longer you take to resolve the issue with your partner, the longer the issue will fester unsolved. Postponing a conversation, no matter how trivial it may seem, can cause it to grow and explode later on. This may drag other unresolved issues into the conversation with it, and too many criticisms at once can cause a troubling amount of damage in a relationship. If the relationship is one that you care about maintaining and cultivating, then it’s best to address issues as they arise. Be sure that by the end of the conversation, there is a plan for how you should move forward. This way, you prevent having to sit down and return to the same subject over and over again.
TIP: If you’re unsure about your ability to maneuver your way through a conversation on a specific subject, try reading Crucial Conversations: Tips for Talking when the Stakes are High to get a more in-depth understanding. You may also benefit from counseling.
Convince yourself that the conversation will end up being a fruitful one that will strengthen your relationship, rather than add stress and tension to it. An optimistic mindset will support more constructive language as you engage in the conversation.
Avoiding Difficult Conversations in the Future
Try to be consistent in giving positive feedback in your relationships so that you build comfort and security enough that you and your partner(s) don’t feel threatened or overly criticized when issues come up later on. In order to better protect yourself as well, practice having better boundaries so you can avoid ending up in uncomfortable or agitating positions in your relationship. Here is more about setting boundaries and people-pleasing.
Practice asking questions and staying curious so that misunderstandings and assumptions aren’t festering. Instead of questions that could feel like a challenge to someone’s character like, “Why are you so lazy?” try to reframe the question to consider external factors by asking questions more like, “What is it that’s affecting your motivation?” or, “Is there anything you’re experiencing that is keeping you from doing your chores?” This way your partner is less likely to feel attacked by your questioning especially if you’re keeping your tone curious rather than accusatory. These 600 Conversation Cards for Couples could be a useful tool for strengthening your communication.
At the end of the day, some topics of conversation are really hard to address and solve in one go. You and your partner(s) may want to establish a time-out signal for when things get too heated and you need time to step away and breathe. Try to come back within 24 hours so you don’t stew for too long but if it feels too difficult to resolve your issues you may want to consider seeing a professional for help.
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