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The Difficult Conversation Toolkit

Updated: Sep 6, 2021

Relationships are dynamic. They change, they grow, and they have their strengths and their difficulties. Every relationship will encounter problems to be overcome, sometimes these problems require us to talk with our partners in ways that feel uncomfortable. Whether you’re talking about the division of chores, jealousy, or sexual needs, having a difficult conversation may seem daunting. Being honest with your partner will help you strengthen your relationship and understanding. It’s important to prepare for difficult conversations and to make sure that everyone involved is being treated fairly. Use these simple tools to make sure that you have an honest, safe, and healthy conversation with your partner.

Prepare Yourself for the Conversation

You’ve decided that you need to talk with your partner about something difficult. Making that decision is an important first step. The silent treatment is never a good response to dealing with an issue. Because you know you want to talk, it is important you give yourself the time to think through the issues that you want to raise. Clarify what you want to discuss and how you want to approach it.

When you’re preparing for a difficult conversation, try and give yourself clear and specific points to raise. Saying something like “I want more respect” can be too general: people show their affection and respect in different ways. It is better to show how specific needs are not being met, or how certain behaviors may upset you. So instead of “I want to feel respected,” think of some behaviors that affirm that respect. Think of points like, “I feel most respected when I know I can have time to myself,” or “I don’t feel as respected when I can’t investigate new sexual interests with my partner.” Take time to recognize the triggers that make you feel upset and think through if you’re making unfair assumptions about your partner’s intent.

Remember that this will be a conversation between you and your partner, it is not supposed to be a lecture. Make sure your points are clear and specific without being accusative. These statements help you express your feelings and give your partner the chance to clarify their intentions. When you prepare clear and concrete issues to discuss you will start the conversation with the goal of reaching understanding, not assigning blame.

Choose a Time and Place to Talk

Now that you know what you want to bring up with your partner, let them know you want to talk. It’s best to pick a particular time and place to have a discussion so that you can give the conversation the space it deserves. This will be a discussion about something that really matters to you, so you deserve to choose a safe time and place to discuss it.

It’s best to avoid having discussions somewhere associated with work or business. Choose a place to talk where you and your partner will feel safe. Schedule for a time when you won’t feel rushed.

When you tell your partner that you’d like to talk, be concise and inviting. Use “we” and “us” to show that you want to talk with them. “I’d like us to talk about how much time we have been spending together lately, when would be a good time for us to have a discussion?” is an inviting way to bring up an issue you want to bring up. If this has been a difficult topic in the past, acknowledge that. “I know this has been tough for us, but I want to make sure we handle it differently this time.” A difficult discussion should take place in a safe place where you and your partner can work together. When you invite your partner into that safe place, you let them know that you care about them and want them to share your concerns.

Listen and Acknowledge Each Other

When you invite your partner into a difficult conversation you are letting them know that you want to listen as well as talk. Difficult topics can put us on the defensive, but overcoming problems means listening and acknowledging that others may see the issue differently.

When you engage in a difficult discussion give your partner the time to speak everything that’s on their mind and expect them to do the same for you. Don’t interrupt your partner when it’s their turn to speak. When they’re done speaking, think about what they said, and then respond to it. If they misunderstood you, let them know when it’s your time to speak.

When you respond to your partner’s viewpoint, try to acknowledge what they’ve said and see if you are understanding them correctly. Acknowledging your partner does not mean you have to agree with them, but you want to show that you care about their viewpoint. It’s good to say “this seems like something very important to you,” or “I see you care about this a lot,” even if you want to provide a different viewpoint or show why you have different priorities.

It is good to acknowledge negative emotions or responses, but always acknowledge them to re-center the conversation. If your partner gets flustered and defensive, don’t respond with “now you’re yelling at me!” but maybe say, “you sounded angrier because of what I said, and I don’t want us to be upset at each other. I do not want to be overly defensive either. I just want to make sure we talk about this.” If you think you need to take some time to cool down, don’t be afraid to say so.

Use Understanding to Build Strategies

When you speak openly and acknowledge each other, you and your partner will gain a better understanding of what you each need and expect. Understanding each other does not mean that the issue at hand will be immediately resolved, but it lets you start building solutions.

Once you can both agree that you understand each other, start talking about what you each need to do. Make sure that you both have new goals and expectations, don’t expect only one of you to shift their expectations. If you find yourselves arguing, go back to talking one at a time and acknowledging each other to clear up misunderstandings. Remember: the process of listening and acknowledging should set the foundation for problem-solving. If problem-solving is proving difficult, go back to listening and discussing.

Starting a difficult conversation can be rough, especially when we’re engaging with partners that we love. It might feel like a difficult conversation is a risk, but honesty and acknowledgment will always be healthier than ignoring the issues that matter to you. Therapy is one way to open up your communication with your partner in a safe place. If you think that therapy might help you and your relationship, schedule a free 20-minute session with me today! I look forward to talking with you.

Sophia Lou. O’Connor, MA, LPC

Psychotherapist | Trainer | Educator

[Pronouns: She/They]

Tel: (720) 935 2706

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