Navigating Difficult Conversations

You would think, as a therapist and someone who has been actively doing self work for about 10 years, difficult conversations would be easy for me. Surprise! They’re not. I would venture to say they aren’t for most people, hence being called “difficult,” in the first place.

When working with clients, I have many communication tips I share with them as they struggle with and prepare themselves for difficult conversations they need to have with friends, family, partners, coworkers etc., (I’ll give a few below). Every person is so unique with different triggers and sensitivities, different past experiences, communication skill, technique and approach. Plus, we’re all human, so of course we accidentally hurt people’s feelings (and maybe even sometimes on purpose), so wouldn’t it make sense that many intimate or serious conversations are difficult to navigate?

Photographer:Ana Paula Lima

The funny thing is, in my experience, and what I see in working with others, the build up to the conversation is usually far worse than the talk itself. The agonizing over the details, when to approach them, how they may react, what you might have to counter with. All imaginary scenarios obviously, since we are not able to predict how another person is going to act or react. The anxiety we cause ourselves reminds me of the slow peeling off of a Band-Aid. Pulling out tiny hairs one at a time.

I wonder if you can try and notice when you find yourself building up or playing an imaginary scenario in your head on loop. It’s like watching a movie. You can always turn off the movie and come back to reality, if you practice your mindfulness skills. Ground your feet on the floor and bring your attention to the present. Sounds, sights, physical feelings happening in real life; not on the movie screen in your head.

Reminds me of this meme…

The only real thing you have control over is how you approach the conversation and how you hold yourself. A friend who is in recovery told me one of the tenants of AA is to “keep your side of the fence clean.” I love this and try to remind myself of it regularly as it really applies to all areas of life. It is all you can do. You can’t control if your neighbor keeps their side of the fence clean. It’s their decision if they want to have a bunch of ugly lawn ornaments or rusted cars or old tires stacked up in their yard. And you can’t take that personally, it doesn’t actually have anything to do with you. If you go into a difficult conversation in an open and compassionate way with a kind heart and genuine intentions, and you walk away knowing you didn’t attack the other person and kept your side of the fence clean, there should be a sense of pride in that. It’s not always easy to do.

Here is where I share some communication tips…

Try writing out some of the feelings or needs you want to communicate and then ensure it’s coming from a place of compassion and not attack. You can even take those notes in with you if you are someone who gets sidetracked by emotions easily and wants to stay on topic (I do it, no shame).

This is where “I statements” come in to play. This is about you, how you feel, what you need, what hurt your feelings. Own that. Don’t attack them. No one can make you feel anything. You can, however, communicate to them how their actions or words contributed to those feelings by triggering old wounds.

  • “When I was talking about a fight I was having with my boss this morning, I felt dismissed when you turned the TV back on before I was finished.”
  • I felt very under-appreciated yesterday after I spent 2-hours cleaning the apartment and it seemed like you didn’t notice.”
  • “When I stayed late last night to finish the group presentation and then no one said thank you this morning, I felt taken advantage of.”

No one likes to be attacked, and everyone’s natural reaction when they feel that way is to switch into defense mode. Once people go into defense mode it’s very hard to have a productive conversation. If you feel defenses going up, or emotions getting heated, take a break for 15-minutes. This is how long it’s been shown it takes the body to metabolize adrenaline and for the heart rate to go down.

Remember, your only job in a difficult conversation is to stick to discussing how you felt/feel, and communicating this in an authentic and “clean” way. The rest is on them. If they attack you or get defensive, and you’ve done your best to keep your side of the fence clean, that is on them. Do your best to walk away knowing those reactions are theirs to own, not yours. Their reaction is based on something from their past or something they struggle with. If you notice a pattern of a person attacking or dismissing you for trying to communicate your feelings, then that is information about them. Pay attention to patterns.

There is actually one other thing you can control, which is a new revelation for me, and something I challenge you on as well: paying attention to and recognizing how you personally like to be approached for difficult conversations, and then relaying that information to those close to you. I’ll give you a personal example. The other night someone I care about wanted to share what they were feeling about us and about our relationship. Without warning after a night of light hearted talking and laughing, they suddenly took a serious tone. They began simply checking in, but I immediately felt a sense of dread. I felt fear in my stomach and panic in my chest. I was pulling from past experiences where a sudden turn to face me with a change in tone is a signal that bad news is coming. My internal reaction and anxiety were so strong I wasn’t able to be present or really listen to what was being communicated. Turns out, the information that they wanted to share wasn’t actually bad, but I was so affected by the approach and what it triggered in me I wasn’t even able to really hear it. After talking this incident over with some friends, I realized that I don’t do well if I don’t have a heads up that serious information (about me personally) is coming my way. I don’t do well with surprises, I like the stage to be set. Now that I have realized this about myself, it’s my responsibility to communicate this need. No one is a mind reader, you have to communicate and ask for what you need (easier said than done, I know).

Of course this isn’t always going to be realistic. Things will have to be talked about in the moment sometimes, but I do think it’s an important part of self awareness to recognize when you are most receptive to having difficult conversations.

So, remember, you set you and your partner/co-worker/friend up for a more successful outcome if you approach difficult conversations:

  • with respect and authenticity, not by attacking
  • not placing blame, but rather speaking only from your perspective, owning your emotions/reactions and explaining how the other person was a part of the dance
  • with respect to how they best receive information (if you know)
  • in a timely way. Don’t wait for days, weeks, months to have the difficult conversation to begin with, building your resentment and worry so high you go in already in a state of heightened anxiety

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**Want to work with me? Visit me @

Psychotherapist, Mindfulness + Codependency Coach. Cohost of the Cheaper Than Therapy Podcast. IG:vanessasbennett

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