We have all been there before...something is going on with your neighbor, a friend, your boss, or your in-laws and it's time to confront something that you would really rather avoid. I have found in my practice and personal life that people would rather have a root canal than confront someone. Every day I hear stories about people using avoidance or passive aggressive tactics to deal with conflict but it really doesn't have to be this way. I will share effective strategies for different scenarios and personality types to get you through most hard conversations. 

How to have a difficult conversation

Every day the topic of having difficult conversations comes up. Whether in my personal life or in my practice, kids and adults alike are often running from confrontation. It is so common that I walk clients through this weekly so I thought I would share with you different ideas and strategies that have worked to help others who dread these types of talks. 

Allie, a 15 year old girl wanted to know why one of her best friends had been ghosting her. She could see that on social media her friend had been going to parties without her, blowing off her messages and avoiding her at school. Allie had been stressed about it and had no idea how to approach her. After two sessions of talking about it we came up with this approach:

1. Ask open ended questions or statements - it is easy to go into an uncomfortable conversation making accusations or asking closed ended questions like, "do you not want to be my friend anymore?" Instead, I encouraged Allie to go in with an open ended question like, "I can tell something has changed between us, I am wondering what I have done to make you not want to spend time with me anymore." 

2. Open with a statement that is direct - I advise people that when we are nervous we tend to over talk, stumble or even stutter our words. So, being prepared with the opening statement helps the conversation stay focused on what you actually want to talk about and not get diverted elsewhere. Practice ahead of time and be sure you are clear and concise in your message.

3. Watch your body language - many of us have heard that body language (or non-verbal language) is more telling than verbal communication so I tell people to think about this when considering where and at what time they want to talk to someone. Factors such as your posture, eye contact, facial expression, and tone of voice can make all the difference in how a difficult conversation plays out. Approaching someone with an open and upright posture, solid eye contact, soft face and a calm tone of voice are often helpful in having a healthy difficult conversation. 

4. Use "I-statements" - it is particularly tempting to say to people, "you did this or that..." but that only puts them on the defensive. When having difficult conversations I advise people to say things like, 'I felt hurt when...or I was surprised by..." it helps the person accept responsibility for their own feelings and makes the conversation happen with less tension.

5. Offer solutions - when going in to this conversation with Allie she felt unsure of what solutions to offer since she wasn't clear of what was even happening within that relationship. So, what we did was create a list of solutions that included everything from taking a break, to planning time for just the two of them, to making a commitment to talk more and rely less on social media apps as a means of communicating. Going into a conversation with solutions if very helpful in not having that stuck feeling that can happen after one or more people have expressed themselves.

6. Approach with empathy - last but not least a good rule of thumb is to approach difficult conversations with empathy. Although Allie felt very hurt by her friend I still had her go through the exercise of putting herself in her friend's shoes. I prompted her with questions such as, "What might your friend be going through? How are things at home? What is going on at these parties?" I wanted Allie to try to go into the conversation with an open heart and mind.

I have guided children, teens and adults alike in using these strategies in their difficult conversations. It is helpful to not only think about these points but to also think about what what your desired outcome is. Sometimes people want to resolve tension, become friends, get a promotion, end a partnership, get permission for something, borrow money- the list goes on. Without some thoughtful pre-planning often times people are unsure of what they even want out of a conversation, so take some time and practice these steps so that you can work through hard times and teach your kids how to as well. Happy Parenting!

About the author

Sheryl Gonzalez Ziegler, Psy.D. holds a Doctorate of Psychology, is an Author, Speaker, National Media Contributor, Non-Profit Board Member, Girl Scouts Leader, Girls on the Run Coach and Advocate for children. She has been treating children and families for over twenty years with areas of expertise in anxiety, trauma, divorce, stress management and depression. Dr. Ziegler is the author of the best selling book, Mommy Burnout: how to reclaim your life and raise healthier children in the process, the winner of Best Parenting Book of 2018 as awarded by International Latino Book Awards.

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