Tiffany and Ryan were at an impasse. Tiffany wanted them to sell their cute but small home and buy something bigger for their growing family. Ryan disagreed—to him, the higher mortgage payment just meant more financial stress and sacrificing other priorities like vacations and savings. For this young couple, difficult conversations like this surface again and again with no resolution. And when they do, it creates conflict that spills over into other parts of their relationship.
Maybe like me, you don’t usually struggle to talk with your partner. However, there are certain subjects that can really make the dialogue go sideways. Unfortunately, these difficult conversations are often the ones that really matter. The conflict they create can be a relationship-shaking event.
When it comes to discussing some issues, it’s easy to let our emotions get in the way and end up sabotaging ourselves and the relationship. But why is it so easy to get tangled up with our partner when it matters most? Any topic where your opinions differ and the stakes are high is a candidate for a difficult conversation. The good news is, we can learn dialogue skills to better handle these negotiations.
Develop a plan for mutual understanding
Based on past conflicts, you probably already know which subjects lead to difficult conversations between you and your partner. To have a better, more productive, and less damaging dialogue is going to require some planning and preparation. Trying to resolve the issue “in the moment” or “whenever” has already proven to be a non-starter, right?
Begin by determining your goals around the issue. What do you really want for yourself, the other person, and the relationship? That also means asking ourselves the question, “How would I behave if I really want these results?” Another way to think about it is, what actions do I need to avoid if I’m going to meet this goal?
Ryan knew he wanted to find a mutually agreeable solution rather than just winning the argument. If Tiffany felt her voice was ignored or that she was pushed into an outcome, she was likely to become resentful. Even though getting to a true agreement was going to take a lot more time and effort, he knew it was worth it.
Next, you’ll want to get all relevant information into the open, which means both parties will need to provide their perspective. If either of you give in before feeling heard, you may reach an agreement, but it won’t have long-term support. This includes not only laying out the facts, but also your feelings about the situation.
In Tiffany’s case, this meant explaining that the children would want more privacy as they got older. She also expressed a desire to have a play area further away from the kitchen. Ryan then carefully showed the lack of wiggle room in their budget and the need to build their savings. He confided that he feels a lot of pressure to make ends meet.
Look for signs of derailment
The key to making sure both you and your partner are contributing to this mutual understanding is to notice if the conversation gets off track. If your significant other shuts down and stops participating, the discussion veers off course. Likewise, if your partner becomes aggressive with their communication, it’s a sign they’re feeling something they value is being threatened.
Withdrawal can take different forms. Perhaps the person is silent or not saying much. Or, they’re avoiding the conversation or trying to change the subject. Even masking—understating or sugarcoating the issue to make it more palatable—is a sign that the person has checked out.
Aggressive communication also varies—from interrupting, exaggerating, and speaking in absolutes, to changing the subject, labeling, or launching personal attacks. Using leading questions to control the conversation also falls into this category. Certainly, any kind of intimidating or physically violent behavior counts as aggression.
Part of your planning process should include anticipating these conversation detours. Knowing your partner like you do, what are the challenges likely to look like in your discussion? What is the best way to respond when they do?
Getting difficult conversations back on track
If your partner shows signs of withdrawal or aggression, take a step back. Typically, this happens when a person is not feeling respected or they feel their mate is not on their side. Check yourself for any disrespectful, aggressive, or intimidating behavior and adjust if necessary. Even if we don’t intend to show it, it’s easy for our conduct to turn sour when we’re flooded by our emotions.
This is a good time to restate the common goals you and your other half established. Make sure you’ve listened closely to what they want. Sometimes, their true purpose lies deeper than what they’re able or willing to say.
At one point in the conversation, Ryan noticed Tiffany growing quiet. Wisely, he paused and repeated what he’d heard her say earlier—that she wanted a bigger place so the kids could each have their own room. Tiffany confirmed that was something she thought was going to be important in the future.
Even though she hadn’t said it, Ryan suspected his introverted wife was also hoping that more space would reduce her stress. Trying to find a quiet place to recharge was a challenge when everyone was crammed into such a small area. He asked whether this was a motivation for her, and she said he’d taken the words right out of her mouth. This immediately brought them closer and allowed the conversation to continue.
Stop yourself from going off the rails
If you catch yourself growing quiet or getting aggressive with your communication, it’s a sign you’ve had a button pushed. Slow down and retrace your path. What often happens is we see or hear something, then we tell ourselves a story about it. That story may generate strong emotions, which in turn drive actions like silence or aggression.
Our brains are clever about making up stories, especially during difficult conversations. One common story is that our partner’s hurt or frustration is our fault. Another is that we don’t measure up and we’ve somehow disappointed them. A third fable is that it’s our responsibility to fix every problem. None of these narratives are true.
If you’re unsure what your partner means, ask your partner if your story is true. Note that asking whether we’re seeing things the same way is not the same as insisting we’re right. Recognize and correct any distorted thinking, and you’ll be better able to re-engage in the conversation without the emotional flooding. Take a time-out if necessary.
When Tiffany rolled her eyes at Ryan’s concern about money, Ryan felt himself getting upset. Upon reflection, he realized he felt disrespected—like she was declaring that he was inadequate as a breadwinner. Even after identifying these as his feelings, not necessarily hers, he still couldn’t get them off his mind.
Ryan paused the conversation and told Tiffany that when she rolled her eyes, he felt judged as a provider. He was telling himself that she was disappointed in him. Using “I” statements made his description about him and avoided making Tiffany defensive.
Tiffany apologized for the eye roll and told him it wasn’t about his ability to provide. Rather, she was trying to gloss over the money issue because it was at odds with what she wanted. Her reassurance helped Ryan let go of his distorted thoughts, forgive Tiffany, and keep talking.
Go for a good outcome, not speed
Ask your companion about the path to their understanding. How do they see the facts? What stories are they telling themselves? Be curious, listen, and talk tentatively. Words like “perhaps” and statements like “it looks like…” make it feel safer, lower the other person’s defenses, and invite them to share.
Continue to watch for any signs that your partner has started resisting and adjust your approach if they are. Monitor yourself for your emotions trying to hijack your communication. While this may sound like you’re doing the emotional work the both of you, remember that you are the only one you can control. Ideally, both you and your partner will take this approach—imperfectly—and help each other move the exchange forward.
As you work to merge your two perspectives, state what you agree on. Where you don’t agree, compare your two views without suggesting the other person is wrong. Get creative in searching for a win-win solution.
Don’t be in a hurry—difficult conversations take more time and effort than day-to-day dialogue. You may advance the negotiations a little, then agree to take a break and come back to the topic again later. Commit to staying in dialogue until you find a mutually agreeable solution. All these techniques take practice, so give yourself a break if you don’t get them perfect right away.
Resolving difficult conversations
It took several discussions over the course of a few months, but Ryan and Tiffany finally came to a solution both could live with. Tiffany agreed having separate rooms for the children was not an immediate need. Ryan offered to take the kids outside for an hour after work to give Tiffany some much-needed quiet time.
They decided to keep their bungalow for now, with the commitment to upgrade in five years when the kids were older. In the meantime, the couple could save for a bigger down payment and set aside pay raises for a rainy-day fund. Both felt good about their mutual decision because both felt heard and valued through the process.
Growing your skills in mastering difficult conversations will serve you well. The book Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler sheds more light on this topic. While written to encompass all types of conversations, including the work world, I’ve drawn heavily from the ideas presented there.