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How to Have Difficult Conversations

How to Have Difficult Conversations

Human beings are hardwired for communication. It is one way in which we connect with each other initially, bond with each other eventually and understand each other, ideally. There are times when what we think, feel and say don’t mesh and a rift occurs between people both personally and professionally. One factor that often plays into communication snafus relate to gender training; and what I think of as the “universal translator” (he says one thing and she hears something else, or vice versa).

A brilliant illustration is embodied in this viral video called “It’s Not About the Nail.” It takes what could be a roll-your-eyes comedic look at the varying ways men and women address problems. Women tend to want someone to hold space and simply listen, and men are more likely to want to resolve the issue as expeditiously as possible.

I laughed when I saw it and thought, “I must be a man, because I want to fix, solve, heal, cure and kiss the boo boos to make them better.” I refer to what I do as “savior behavior” and see it as an occupational hazard as a therapist who works with clients who come toting all manner of problems that they want help healing. Do I take time for allowing for venting? Yes. Do I create safe space for them to unburden themselves of the heavy weight of their woes? Absolutely. And I know that as a clinician it is also part of my job to guide them to see their way clear to the other side of whatever is troubling them. Sometimes it does mean pointing out the huge impediment they keep placing in their way, or the massive nail they have sticking out of the center of their forehead. Think of the proverbial elephant in the room that everyone walks around.

A Couple’s Communication Challenge

Family communication style plants seeds for adult interactions. In the home where Susan was raised, anger was rarely expressed and voices not often raised, except for in revelry. She did not observe her parents, whose marriage lasted 52 years, arguing much. They subscribed to the belief that differences could be worked out if love was present. They spoke to each other respectfully and were affectionate in word and actions.

Susan does have suspicions that her parents’ marriage was not the ideal that she perceived it to be and that they may have suppressed feelings in the service of keeping the peace. She learned well how to do that in many of her own relationships, including her marriage. Susan didn’t recognize until much later that not seeing her parents at odds with each other did not prepare her well for negotiating differences with her husband Sam.

In the family in which her husband Sam grew up, it was quite the opposite. “The decibel level was off the scales,” as he described it. His parents divorced when he was in his late 20’s and his father left his mother for another woman. He rarely saw them interact affectionately throughout his childhood. His was a home in which addiction and aggression were present.

In their marriage, Susan was conflict avoidant and Sam didn’t hesitate to express dissatisfaction quite vocally at times. Resolution came only after verbal explosion. They would retreat to their respective corners, sometimes speaking only minimally for days and contemplate ways to improve their relationship. Although she was a therapist with many years of training and experience and he was a business man whose role as a manager made him adept at conflict resolution, both felt at a loss to bridge the divide between what they felt and the ways in the which they expressed it. Each blamed the other for their unhappiness and found it difficult to see their way through the morass.

Tools to Assist in Enhancing Communication

There is a difference between fact and perception. To let people in our circles, know what is on our minds, it is easy to get the two mixed up. Many is the time clients have asked why someone in their lives hates them. I asked how they know they hate them. Were those the actual words used? Usually not. More often it is a felt sense, rather than a direct expression. I ask them to describe the conversation as if I was an observer, and not a participant as they were. When they do so, I am able to point out the error in their thinking. It takes a bit of the charge from it. They have been known to volley back with “How could I see it differently?”

One couple who have been together at least two decades, use the phrase, “My ego wants to tell you…” and then they complete the sentence. This usually gives the other a heads up that something at least slightly unpleasant needs to expressed and de-fuses the potential discomfort. They are generally able to laugh about it soon after.

This technique is simple to use whether it is in a professional or personal setting.  It can initially be done in writing and then read to the person in question.

When thinking about ___________________.

What I saw/observed

What I perceived/believed

What I felt

What I wanted (but didn’t get)

What I learned

What I wish for moving forward

Reid Mihalko is a relationships coach and sex educator who utilizes a protocol for enhancing conversations especially when they are challenging. He refers to it as ‘difficult conversations formula’. He has found it to be useful in romantic relationships, in friendships, between family members, as well as in the workplace. He has long encouraged people to “say what isn’t being said.”

Cognitive distortions also play a role in miscommunication. Those that directly relate include: always being right, blaming, black and white (all or nothing) thinking, control fallacies and jumping to conclusions. Identifying them may smooth the otherwise pot hole strewn road and lead to greater happiness in relationships and make those erstwhile difficult conversations far easier to endure.

How to Have Difficult Conversations

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW is a journalist and interviewer, licensed social worker, interfaith minister, radio host and best-selling author.

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APA Reference
Weinstein, E. (2019). How to Have Difficult Conversations. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 23 Mar 2019 (Originally: 1 Aug 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 23 Mar 2019
Published on Psych All rights reserved.