We may find it easy to tie a tie, change a tire or pitch a tent, but too many of us are at a loss when it comes to having important conversations.
How do we express ourselves clearly and with the appropriate level of emotion? How can we trust ourselves to follow through with our messages? Tough conversations are no easy feat. In fact, according to a Ball Park study done by branding agency Kelton Global, eight out of 10 men admit to putting off tough talks; 50 percent delay dialogue for a month or more; 36 percent have faked being too busy or sick and more than 30 percent would rather clog a toilet in someone else’s home. We’re talking overflowing bathrooms over breaking up, telling your friend his girl cheated on him, telling your friend you don’t want to be his friend, admitting and apologizing for some screwed-up thing you did and telling your friend his fiancée isn’t right for him.
But since Ball Park is more an authority on frankfurters, we reached out to a bevy of psychology experts to tell us how to cope with conversations we can’t avoid much longer.
“Use ‘Yes, and’ instead of ‘Yes, but.’ Using ‘but’ often creates an unconscious resistance in others’ brains. ‘And’, however, helps them to understand you’re on their side.” —Dr. Perpetua Neo, clinical pyschologist
1. Stop procrastinating.
“Tough conversations are avoided because people don’t want to face conflict, rejection or disappointing others,” says April Masini, New York-based relationship expert and voice of Ask April. While understandable, these reactions don’t make for a healthy relationship with someone else or even yourself. So get grounded in reality by acknowledging your own discomfort and going over the facts so you don’t get caught up in an emotional storm of all the what-ifs. “If you wait too long, you also run the risk of the issue no longer being relevant,” warns Nakya Reeves, owner of Creative Solutions Therapy. “And nothing is worse than trying to have a conversation when you’ve caused the other person to become irritated with you for bringing up an old issue.”
2. Know what you’re trying to accomplish.
“Before you have the conversation, get clear on your intention,” says Michele Fabrega, a love, intimacy and sexuality coach for men. “[Ask yourself] Why am I bringing this up? What am I trying to have happen? If this could go exactly the way I want, what would be the outcome? Most importantly, how do I want to feel afterward? How do I want the other person to feel afterward? Sometimes we want to get closer to someone and help them understand their impact on us.” Fabrega isn’t alone here. “Think about what you want them to know, feel and do before you have the conversation,” adds clinical pyschologist Dr. Perpetua Neo. “This rule will help keep you from waffling and get to the crux of the matter.”
3. Don’t make the conversation the sole focus of your time together.
There should always be more to a conversation than just the hard part. Reeves recommends building in some extra time to an already positive event like a dinner with a friend or a day with family instead of having a standalone conversation. “Leave on a positive note,” she suggests. “That way they can see although you may have had an issue to address, you are able to move on and still enjoy the relationship that you have.”
4. Let them know that you’re about to bring up something potentially uncomfortable.
Make sure it’s a good time for the other person, and then ease them into it, notes Fabrega: “[Say something like] The reason I want to bring this up is that I want us to have more harmony in our relationship—and something happened that I want to address with you.” If they agree to talk, ask them to just listen as you share your experience. Then stop, thank them for listening and give them a chance to respond.
5. Acknowledge that communicating can be hard.
Nothing worth doing in life is easy. Reeves offers a way to lower the other person’s defenses: “When having a hard conversation, acknowledge that the conversation is a hard topic. [Say] ‘This is hard for me to talk about, and I’m not exactly sure how to have this conversation.’ This can allow both people to put their guards down and give each other some slack when the words aren’t coming out just right.”
6. Be factual.
Don’t make an ass out of u and me. “Be specific and stay with only the facts (what an observer would have noticed) as well as your own thoughts and feelings that came up,” says Fabrega. “[Notice that] ‘You were trying to make me look bad’ is probably not going to be received as well as ‘When I heard [what you said], I felt angry.’ The former is an interpretation. The latter is your experience.”
7. Have actual two-sided dialogue.
Often we go into conversations with an end goal, without realizing that goal may change if we truly listen. Houston-based psychiatrist Jared Heathman, MD says that one of the biggest mistakes you can make is not having a true conversation at all. So don’t repress your feelings and don’t express them without reciprocating through listening. “A conversation is an exchange of information which means that you should equally listen to gain insight before speaking again,” Heathman notes. “What you hear could guide the conversation in a more meaningful way.”
8. Note that anger leads to hate.
Yoda may or may not have said something along these lines. “Anger and attacks are the antithesis of forward motion,” says Darren Pierre, author of The Invitation to Love. Remember that you can’t control someone else, but you can control yourself. “Empower yourself to know [that] when the passion of the conversation has taken hold with anger and you are no longer able to engage as your best self, it’s time to disengage for the discussion.” Oh, and don’t be a jerk. “When we are feeling strong emotion, it is more difficult to communicate skillfully,” notes Fabrega. “If we’re hurt or angry, we might want to hurt the other person or take them down a notch. If this is what you are feeling, it might be good to wait and talk to a supportive person first.”
9. Be aware that cooler heads don’t always prevail.
Sometimes people are so insecure, unhappy or both that you won’t make much headway in a conversation that puts any criticism on them whatsoever, no matter how justified. You can’t expect a tough chat to go swimmingly with someone who’s “emotionally deaf and spiritually blind,” says Pierre.
10. Use ifs, ands… but no buts.
Last but not least, the very words you use can have a big impact on a tough conversation. Here’s a little change that can make a big difference, courtesy of Dr. Neo: “Use ‘Yes, and’ instead of ‘Yes, but.’ Using ‘but’ often creates an unconscious resistance in others’ brains. ‘And’, however, helps them to understand you’re on their side.”
Confrontation is healthy when done the right way. We may actually take care of ourselves by realizing that our feelings and thoughts are just as important as the feelings and thoughts of others, and when we don’t address them, all we’re doing is letting resentment build to a potential explosion. No one wants that. So remember: Sometimes you’ve just gotta get tender to get tough.