3 Priorities for Having a Difficult Conversation

Nadine Groves

difficult conversations, conflict

Why did I say that?! Why did I react that way? Why did I say nothing? I betrayed myself!

Doing a postmortem on conversations is rarely a pastime people talk about, but it’s something we all do. This is especially true while navigating life during an ongoing pandemic – opinions, needs, and risk tolerance vary, and we may not agree with those who are important to us which can lead to difficult conversations.

Tricky conversations are often challenging because of competing priorities. When having a difficult conversation, there are three main priorities for effective communication that we should consider:

  • The objective
  • Maintaining self-respect
  • The influence of the relationship

Sometimes we need to push hard for what we want, while occasionally it is more helpful to set aside our wants in favour of the other person. A helpful starting point is to remember that there is the conversation as well as after the conversation.

The Objective

Knowing why we are having an interaction is a necessary place to start. Casual conversations don’t usually have an overt objective. However, when conversations become tricky, it is often because there is something we want from our interaction. Maybe it’s become clear that we hold a different opinion and would like to be able to express it. Perhaps we need to ask someone for a favour and state a need. Or we might want to say no or set a boundary.

The intensity of how we communicate also needs to match the importance of obtaining our objective. When anticipating a difficult conversation, it is helpful to think about what you want to be different by the end of the conversation, along with how attached you are to that desired outcome.

Often all we want out of a conversation is to feel heard, validated, and understood.

Maintaining Self-respect

Once the conversation is over, how do you want to feel about yourself? Often all we want out of a conversation is to feel heard, validated, and understood. Were you able to express what you wanted to say? Did you present in a way that aligns with your values and self-image? Self-respect takes a nosedive if strong emotions cause us to get intense and aggressive or dismissive of other opinions in order to be heard. Although we may get what we want in the moment through our intense presentation, we may feel badly about what we said, how we said it, or how little we listened.

Conversely, emotions can also cause us to shut down and try to avoid potential disagreement or disappointment because we have a different opinion. Most people can relate to walking away thinking, “I wish I said . . .” instead of being quiet or caught off guard.

Some people are not used to having their thoughts and opinions heard. A more passive communication style has helped many people navigate tricky relationships in their lives and it can be really brave work to learn and implement the skills to speak up when you’re not used to it.

The Influence of the Relationship

The significance of the relationship is a huge influence in how we communicate our message. When the relationship is neither important or ongoing, this factor means less and it is easier to be direct and clear about what we want: “No, I am not interested in donating to that charity, I tend to donate elsewhere” or “Please put these groceries in the reusable bags I brought.” Some people find it much easier to say no to a stranger than a friend, and the same is true when asking for something.

When the relationship is a significant factor, it can complicate our message, particularly if we have strong myths about communication that influence our feelings about relationships. For example, “Saying no is selfish” or “I shouldn’t have to communicate my needs, they should know.”

Asking someone for help when we fear rejection can cause us to feel very vulnerable. Many people fear saying no as they think it will hurt the relationship. These myths are part of looking at the barriers to effective communication.

“How do I want the other person to think about me when this interaction is over?” When saying no to a request, asking for something, or setting a limit, remembering how important the relationship is will help us ensure there is connection at the end of the conversation. Specific ways to value this connection include our ability to be gentle, listen to the other person, validate their perspective, and “keep it light.” In essence, how well did we listen as we communicated?

When anticipating a difficult conversation, it is helpful to think about what you want to be different by the end of the conversation, along with how attached you are to that desired outcome.

Incorporating All Three

Think about a potential conversation with a roommate where you expected the dishes done as per the housecleaning arrangement, but the sink is full of dirty dishes. The objective is to have the kitchen tidied up. The self-respect factors include speaking to your expectations and values of upholding the cleaning arrangement. You likely also want to be able to feel good about yourself afterwards, so being direct, fair, and in control are key. Thinking about the relationship will help this be approached in a way that brings openness, respect, and connection. If the roommate is important to you, so is understanding what got in the way and working out the expectations going forward.

As the seasons change and we go back into the second winter of the pandemic, I will be drawing on these three priorities for effective communication. When decisions need to made about outings and gatherings, I will try to think about what it is I feel comfortable doing and what I need from others in order to remain comfortable – that is the objective. Then I want to balance my self-respect (the way I communicate my message while remaining true to my values) with the importance of the relationship (the way I communicate the message while being easy and respectful of the other person). So even if we disagree, we remain connected and are more likely to understand each other’s choices.


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Author: Nadine Groves (MEd, RCC)
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

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