We Have to Talk
No one likes tough conversations. I’m avoiding two myself right now (one with my landlord and another with my hair stylist. To me, this is a good day!).
There’s nothing fun about bringing up issues to friends or family: “Our heart rate goes up, the palms sweat. We all know those bodily sensations too well. That’s because hard conversations seem unsafe to most of us,” explains professional mediator and certified coach Julia Menard. “I grew up in a home where conflict meant shouting, fighting and sometimes even physical expressions of anger. I had hard-wired at an early age that conflict meant threat.”
But avoiding issues is not only mentally unhealthy, research shows that ignoring conflict can have detrimental effects on our physical health too. Unresolved personal conflicts may actually raise your risk of heart attack related to depression and anxiety, according to a new study published in European Heart Journal. The good news is that we can train ourselves to see tough conversations differently and take the stress out of these awkward situations. So if you’re dreading a conversation that’s sure to bring up some tension (even tears!), read on for expert advice.
The “Why Are You Always Late?” Talk
Whenever you make an arrangement to meet your best friend at a specific time, you end up waiting for her. Sometimes she’s 15 minutes late, other times closer to an hour. Your time is just as precious as hers, but you’ve ignored it because you don’t want to rock the boat.
Try: Disarm by meeting her halfway. Bring up the conversation by asking if you’ve been pushing a time that isn’t always convenient for your friend. (Perhaps she’s been afraid to say no to your plans!) Once you get that out of the way, then you can explain how your time is as important as hers by way of a sacrifice you made to meet her, such as leaving some work on your desk for early tomorrow morning just so you could see her tonight. “The truth is, it may feel good when we are pleasing others, but our true strength, value and worthiness comes from our deep connection to our authentic selves,” says licensed professional counselor Judy Zehr, LPC, MHRM in Portland, Ore who co-hosts tele-classes on tough conversations with Menard.
The “You Lied To Me” Talk
You just learned that a trusted friend lied to you big time and you’re furious. You’re afraid to confront her because you really want to blow your lid.
Try: Aim to diffuse anger. This way you won’t be swept up by emotions. “Think about what your intention is in bringing up the topic and also what your desired outcome is,” says Robert Solley, Ph.D. “Being clear about these can help you focus.” Solley recommends even explicitly stating what you hope to achieve at the outset of the discussion. For example, if you just want her to apologize, say that. Want an explanation so you can move past this? Lay it out right away.
The “You Never Listen To Me” Talk
You were first attracted to the guy you’re dating because he came on so confident and extroverted. The only problem is, you’ve started to notice that he interrupts you when you speak and seems to not hear things you say. How can you bring this up to him so he finally, er, listens?
Try: Keep talking and ignore his facial expressions. “When you look at the studies it is so fascinating, because the slightest raise in an eyebrow, something that you wouldn’t even notice consciously, can trigger the stress response,” explains Zehr.
This “fight-or-flight” hormonal response can come from watching subtle signs in your receiver, from a squint in the eye to a louder voice. But this response can also make our thinking more confused if we watch whom we’re talking to too closely. Then, says Zehr, gently but firmly maintain your message as you speak, without getting angry, feeling anxious or trying to backtrack. Find that you’re still not getting heard? “Ending the conversation is probably our best bet,” says Zehr. Of course, if this results in ending the relationship too is up to you.
The “I’m Leaving” Talk
This one you’ve put off for months. With all the fights and disappointments, you feel like it’s time to take a break from that boyfriend of two years. Only every time you think about bringing it up, you get a pit in your stomach. What do you do?
Try: Fight his approach, not him personally. By now, you probably know him well enough to recognize what kinds of words or tone of voice trigger an emotional response from him. Instead of getting caught up in another cycle of arguments, neutralize his strategy by keeping the personal out of the conversation. “Couples often start their discussions with a great deal of negative emotion and criticism,” says Menard. “The key is to start with something that shows your desire to have a constructive conversation. You can achieve this by saying what your best intention is for the conversation or by stating what you hope might be a mutual purpose in engaging in the conversation or you can even start by admitting you are finding this hard to bring up.” Not a bad approach for committed couples, either.
The “I Heard You Gossiping About Me” Talk
Did you really overhear your pal talking about you behind your back at that party last weekend? Finding out that someone is talking about you really hurts. You probably want to ignore it, hoping it blows over because you’d rather not confront the person gossiping about you.
Try: Prepare to describe the situation objectively. This can be admittedly hard when emotions are at play, so Menard recommends writing it out beforehand. “One powerful, but simple, preparation technique it to take a piece of paper and draw two columns on the page,” she says. On the top of the left column, write ‘Behaviors/Facts’ and on top of the right column, write ‘Interpretations/Judgments.’ Then put down what the situation is that is bugging you, keeping the facts going on the left side column and any interpretations or judgments on the right side column.” Not only will this keep you calm when you confront your pal, it may also keep the lines of communication open enough to undo any damage that’s been done.
The “Have You Been Ignoring Me?” Talk
You email, it takes her a day to respond. You try to make plans and she always cancels. Is your old co-worker avoiding you or is she really that busy? You want to ask her what gives but don’t want to put her on the spot.
Try: Act optimistic, not accusatory. Approach this conversation by assuming that yes, she has just been busy and not ignoring you. “A common trap is to start the conversation with how upset you are or what negative thing they did. This will automatically shut down the other person and bring out their defensiveness,” says Menard. Start this conversation with the best intentions — meaning, you miss your friend and want to spend more time together — and you may just get exactly what you’ve wished for.
The “It’s Time to Look At Our Budget” Talk
Whether it’s the house you want to buy or the tuition for that dream school for your child, you can’t afford the expense. Right now, that is. Yet, if your family makes some sacrifices, the dream splurge is within your reach. So how can you bring up this touchy subject about spending money to your partner?
Try: Do your homework before you speak up. “The first strategy is to get a hold of our ourselves in conflict. The best strategy is a preventative one,” says Menard. You wouldn’t walk into a meeting with your boss about your budget without having run the numbers on your own. So in the same way, approach this subject in a similarly professional manner. You’re trying to convince your partner to make some concessions monetarily and you need the stone-cold facts in front of you so it seems acceptable, not accusatory. You can bank on that.