Even in the best of relationships, sometimes you’ll need to have a difficult conversation. Maybe you need to tell a partner something you are pretty sure they’re not going to like very much. Maybe you need to bring up a subject that, even if you’re going to get emotional support, still kind of throws you for a loop. Part of being able to have a good relationship is being able to have a difficult conversation.
Know what you want to talk about.
What is it that needs bringing up? Has it been sitting around long enough to have mutated? This can happen, but it is best if you can think clearly to make sure you understand the core of what it is you want to bring up. Is it something a partner is doing that you would like to have changed? Is it something that’s been weighing on your heart? Difficult conversations are often those things that we’ve left to fester, so a way to avoid some (but not all!) is to make sure you that once you understand a thing, that you communicate it. That won’t avoid all of them. We change our minds about things. We find we want something we’re not sure a partner is going to much like. Sometimes we feel unexpectedly vulnerable about something. These things happen as a part of being human and we need to be able to cope with them.
So, think. Know what it is you want to talk about.
Pick a good time and place.
Two in the morning, when the person is driving down a dark road, ain’t it. Neither is right before work when everyone is rushed. Difficult conversations are rarely immediate and urgent, anyway, so it’s a good idea to pick a good time. This can be a time of day when you know both of you are more mellow and aren’t rushed. It should be a private place where you feel safe. No matter how mellow or relaxing, though, I cannot recommend them on more than a glass of wine.
Distractions should be minimized and you should make sure you have enough time for everyone to process what you’re bringing up.
You and your partners love each other, right? You’re not out to get each other and you care about each others’ welfare, right? (If you don’t care about each others’ welfare, you shouldn’t be partners, you know.) Work from that assumption. Let that inform what you have to say.
Be clear and kind
Keep what you are going to say as concrete as possible. This is not to say you have to have everything figured out before you start talking. Where you’re confused or unclear about something yourself, it’s perfectly fine – nay desirable, to say so.
In addition to this, if there is a kind way to state something accurately, choose that.
Be willing to listen
Once you’ve had your say, make sure to ask if your partner has input. Be willing to listen deeply. Be willing to ask questions to make sure you understand. If someone comes to you with something tough, be sure that you’re willing to listen carefully, then ask your own questions or explain what you’re thinking and feeling.
Know when the discussion is over.
I like to talk. I like to analyze. This is not always the goodness you’d think it is. Once you’ve stopped making progress and are just chewing on an idea, it might be the time to stop the discussion. Sometimes this will be in a natural stopping point in a discussion, but sometimes it isn’t.
My husband and I, both of us having been on the wrong end of discussions lasting into the wee small hours going nowhere, have some rules that we agreed on for our own discussions. We don’t stay up late to talk unless it’s for recreational purposes. Discussing the influence of Monty Python on American humor is perfectly fine. Trying to understand why someone is resistant to detailed budgeting is not.
We tend to be disciplined about bedtimes anyway because we’ve learned we’re little snowflakes and don’t do well cognitively when we don’t get our sleep. We have some of those fake candles you can put on an auto-timer that we have set to go off around bedtime. Many a night we stop even in the middle of recreational discussions and laugh, knowing we need to shut the hell up and go to sleep.
But it isn’t even the night stuff. A six-hour Deep Relationship Discussion is a rare bird, indeed. It’s okay to get everything out some Saturday afternoon, then turn to your video game, ya know.
So, when is the discussion over?
- Are you repeating yourselves
- Do you feel understood?
- Is attention wandering?
- Does someone REALLY have to pee? (Breaks are okay. But sometimes that can be a good stopping point)
- Are you feeling a little drained?
Any of these things can mean you’re done, or at least done for the time being.
The important thing to remember when you’re having your difficult discussion is that unless it’s an emergency, you can take some time over it. It may be that some decisions have deadlines – whether to accept a job, when to have a baby… That’s okay. But after you’re clear about the fact the deadline exists, it’s okay to relax a little and just wait.