How do I have difficult conversations?
Recently I went to a conference that focused on creativity. One of the speakers Phillip Attmore addressed the importance of having difficult conversations because that is what is required to build healthy and intimate relationships. In this particular case, the discussion was around racism in the church and being willing to own that these racial hurts exist for different individuals instead of hiding the fact that these realities are true. I know this topic is somewhat broad because there are so many kinds of difficult conversations. I wanted to spend time talking about the psychological reasons that make certain conversations difficult and ways that we can approach these conversations in a safe and healthy manner.
As a disclaimer, having these difficult conversations are always easier said than done. Even as a psychologist who frequently enters into the sacred space of difficult conversations and emotions, I still have a hard time bringing up certain things with my own parents! That is why they are categorized as difficult conversations! The reality is that what may be easy for you to talk about may be extremely hard for someone else to even think about, let alone mention. So, I am not going to spend too much time talking about which topics consist of difficult conversation materials. Let’s just say that these are the topics that make you feel extremely uncomfortable which can range from sex, differences in parenting perspective, religion, and other potentially controversial issues.
I want to talk about some of the underlying reasons that make certain things difficult to bring up and engage in conversation. Conversations can be difficult when there is something at stake that people worry about if the conversation is not handled well.That fear may be losing a relationship(s) or being judged negatively. When the relationship is not one of emotional safety, then anything that could bring opposition or differences may jeopardize the relationship.The feelings that may come up include anxiety, frustration, disappointment, and anger. Other times, the very thought of having this conversation can bring somatic symptoms such as an upset stomach, muscle tightness, increased heart rate, and other distressing bodily feelings. Sometimes the feelings are so distressing that a person will avoid these feelings by suppressing one’s thoughts and feelings for months or even years.
So why even bother talking about something that would bring such discomfort? The short answer is to cultivate authenticity and integrity in the relationship. When people only say what they believe others want to hear but it is not honest, then the relationship is somewhat built on a lie which only creates more fear and unsafe emotions. Pastor Timothy Keller, author of “the Meaning of Marriage,” frames this internal dilemma in this way: “To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.”To have the meaningful relationships that we are wired to want, it requires courage to be honest when sharing our thoughts and feelings.
So how do we engage in these honest but sometimes difficult conversations? The first thing that needs to happen is to establish an emotionally safe place.That means both parties need to agree that what is shared is ultimately for the betterment of the relationship and not used for criticism. The person who is initiating this conversation may want to set up this framework with the health of the relationship as the primary purpose and see if the other person is willing to abide by those guidelines. Even using those words “emotional safety" can help provide a certain context that needs to take place before sharing anything. If the other person is not willing to listen and be respectful, then the emotional safety is not established and I would not advise proceeding. It is okay to spell out the reason why you are unable to be honest due to the nature of the relationship and the internal process is more about accepting that the limit ends there with that level of intimacy.
The other part of establishing emotional safety is to have the right kind of nonverbal behaviors. That means a person’s body language and facial expressions needs to display compassion, care and genuine interest. If you do not know what that looks like, consider the next time you see a really cute animal (like a puppy or kitten) or a baby. Hold that expression. Then look in the mirror and see what kind of facial expression comes up for you! We are aiming for general warmth with an open posture of care. If this is too hard of a task, then consider putting on a “poker face” of neutrality when you listen to the information.
The next part is equally important which is how things are said and responded. The person sharing would do best if things are phrased in a first-person way so that ownership is taken for what one feels or thinks. For example, “I feel disrespected when I clean the house and clothes are left on the floor” rather than “You are disgusting slob.” Then the person who is listening can do their best to validate the response by reflecting what was heard.For example, “I heard that you feel disrespected whenever I leave my clothes on the ground after work.” When there is confirmation that what is being communicated is accurate, then the listener can share their thoughts and feelings about what was shared.For example, “I apologize that you feel disrespected because that was not my intention. I was simply tired and didn’t have the energy to put my clothes away.” Eventually when the person who is sharing the information feels heard (which often takes care of 90% of the problem because he or she feels valued), then one can ask if this is the best time to problem solve together.
Obviously this is a simplified version of conflict resolution and there are more nuances depending on the people involved as well as the situation. What I do know is when people feel free to share honestly and have a positive experience doing so, then it creates more safety and intimacy for future conversations. If your situation seems too difficult to have an emotionally stable and healthy conversation, you may consider bringing some of these challenges into couples or family therapy.This can allow the therapist to establish and reinforce these guidelines so that people feel safe to share and be heard. Either way, difficult conversations need to happen in order for us to have healthy relationships.
If you have any further questions about couples or family therapy to see if it is right for you, please don’t hesitate to call or email me. I can provide additional assistance through a phone consultation to clarify your questions!
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