You might find it tough to talk about physical intimacy with your partner, or reveal your real career goals to your parents. You might find it tough to disclose your disappointments to a friend, or divulge your deepest feelings and fears to your closest people.
Any topic can become a difficult topic to discuss. It really “depends on the person and their relationship,” said Aaron Karmin, MA, LCPC, a psychotherapist at Urban Balance.
Below, Karmin shares specific tips and examples for talking about tough topics.
Before Your Talk
Before having a difficult conversation, it helps to better understand your personal motivations. Karmin suggested journaling to help you sort out your thoughts and feelings. This makes them tangible and easier to evaluate, he said.
As you’re journaling, ask yourself these questions, which help “to make our internalized, unconscious, unacceptable feelings conscious and concrete.”
- “What is the worst part about it?
- How does that worst part make me feel?
- When else have I felt this way?
- Is it better to be right or just have peace?
- What am I trying to achieve?
- What scares me about this?
- How will this affect my life in the long term?
- What would be an ideal outcome?
- What advice would I give to someone else in this situation?”
Bringing Up Tough Topics
Before launching into your talk, schedule a conversation. “Invitations support cooperation, rather then bullying [the other person] into speaking when it’s convenient only for you,” said Karmin, who also pens the popular Psych Central blog “Anger Management.”
According to Karmin, these are several options for setting a time to talk (which needs to work for both people):
- “Is this a good time to talk?
- I want to talk; can we sit down tomorrow after dinner?
- I need your help with what just happened. Do you have a few minutes to talk?
- I’d like to talk about___________. When is a good time for you?”
Turn off any music, TV, computers and telephones, Karmin said. “It’s essential to remove any distractions to emphasize that this conversation is a priority.”
Use an “I” statement.
“[C]ome right to the point and use an ‘I’ statement,” he said. Examples include: “I felt hurt when…” or “I’m concerned about…” or “I’m feeling really… (e.g., sad, scared, frustrated, overwhelmed, stressed), and I need your help.”
Communicate what you’d like to happen.
Be specific about your request, and make it positive and concrete, Karmin said. He gave this example: “I’d like you to bring home a gallon of milk and a carton of eggs on your way from work.”
“The idea is that we need to let the other person know what we want instead of what they are already doing. If we say ‘stop doing so and so,’ they may be confused on what else they can do, so they simply continue acting as they always have.”
What Not To Do
“Many things we think show understanding actually have the opposite effect,” Karmin said. Instead they make others “feel mad or misunderstood.” Here’s what to avoid:
- Avoid accusatory or critical phrases. They only lead others to become defensive. Karmin gave these examples: “You always… You never… You said… You should have… Why didn’t you…” This also steers you away from finding a solution, and ensures you’ll just fight “about the 10 last things that pissed each of you off.”
- Avoid “shoulds.” “The word ‘should’ implies I know what is best, and if you don’t do as you should, you are then guilty of being wrong.” Instead of should, use the word “prefer.” As Karmin added, don’t forget that “everyone’s perception of reality is their reality or truth.”
- Don’t minimize a person’s pain. For instance, avoid saying: ”Everybody suffers. What makes you so special? Why don’t you grow up? You’re driving me crazy.”
- Don’t give advice. For instance, avoid saying: ”What you need to do is….” Or “If you would stop being such a baby you wouldn’t have that trouble.”
- Don’t issue ultimatums. This is a form of manipulation, he said. “These behaviors antagonize another’s fear of rejection, abandonment and loss.” Scaring someone into agreeing with you just creates resentment, he said. They feel like you’re trying to control them, and you rarely reach a compromise.
- Don’t expect others to be mind readers. Avoid the belief that other people should know what you’re thinking or what you need without you ever saying it, he said.
Identify what they’re feeling.
“The key to understanding the other person is identifying their feeling,” Karmin said. Because it might be implied in the tone of their voice or their body language, simply comment on what you observe. For instance, you might say, “You seem worried, you’re trembling.”
Then acknowledge their feelings. You might say: “You feel strongly about this!” or “You seem to feel very concerned (hurt, upset, confused).”
Build on the talk.
“Invite more discussion,” Karmin said. You might do that by simply saying: “Uh huh” or “I’d like to understand how you are feeling. Will you tell me more?”
Acknowledge that pain is individual.
“Understand that the person’s pain is special for that person,” Karmin said. You might say: “Your pain must be awful. I wish I could understand just how sad (or hurt or lonely) you feel.”
Use active listening.
Actively listening to someone involves making sure that you truly understand what they’re communicating. This can include paraphrasing what they’ve said and asking for clarification. Karmin gave these examples: “Let me see if I understand. You feel like…? It sounds like you feel lonely (confused, sad, etc.).”
In general, when communicating about tough topics – or any topic — remember that you can’t change anyone else, Karmin said. “You are powerless over everyone and everything but yourself and your efforts.”