How to handle difficult conversations

| May 12, 2021
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Relationships might feel especially prickly these days. We’re 14 months into a global pandemic, it’s the end of the academic term, and the transition to summer plans (or postgrad life) is looming. 

All of these factors can exacerbate the normal daily tensions of living among people who each have individual desires and needs that might not neatly overlap. Additionally, a polarizing national political situation can make many topics of conversation quite fraught. 

If you find yourself more irritable or more often involved in conflict these days, here are three tips to help communicate through friction. World-renowned relationship researchers and clinical psychologists John and Julie Gottman, a married couple themselves, suggest developing three crucial skills for navigating intimate conversations. This advice applies to all kinds of relationships, from romantic partners to friends to roommates to family members. 

Learn how to articulate your feelings.

This skill accomplishes two things at once. Firstly, researchers have found that being able to describe feelings in words has a salutary and calming effect on the brain. If you are able to find a suitable metaphor, image, or phrase to capture what you are experiencing internally, you will often find a sense of resolution that releases tension and lowers the intensity of overwhelming emotions. Secondly, describing our feelings out loud to a relationship partner also allows us to communicate accurately and eventually arrive at an understanding of what we might need from them.

For example, if you are feeling tension with a roommate, try to get in touch with what might be going on inside yourself when the two of you are together. Start by putting it into words privately, perhaps through writing. Are you feeling sadness, distance, anger in this person’s presence?

The next step, once you’ve identified the feelings, is to speak to the person about it directly. Try to be as specific as possible without using “always” or “never,” as these overly general phrases cannot be truly accurate and can make people become quickly defensive. Say, for example, “I have been feeling angry and frustrated lately when it is your turn to do the dishes and I notice that there are still dishes in the sink.”

Ask open-ended questions.

This strategy allows us to help our relationship partners explore their feelings. Here are some examples of open-ended questions: 

  • “How have you been feeling lately?”
  • “What’s been on your mind?” 
  • “What are you worried about?” 
  • “How did it make you feel when I said that?” 
  • “Tell me how that was for you.” 

 The key to open-ended questions is that they cannot be answered by a yes or no, and they generally require an elaborated response. They do not steer the conversation or fish for a specific response. 

Express empathy.

Empathy, or validation, is when we mentally put ourselves in a position of understanding the other person’s point of view, allowing ourselves to see why they might be feeling the way they feel and why their response to us makes sense to them.

This choice can be particularly challenging when we are in the midst of a conflict and feel angry at our relationship partner. Yet it is precisely in those moments when empathy is most necessary, as it allows for us to bridge our clashing perspectives, abandon mutual defensiveness, and find a common ground.

In moments of conflict, it can be important to validate yourself alongside your relationship partner. It can be helpful to remember that we each have different perceptions of a given situation, and both sets of perceptions can be valid even if they lead to very different thoughts, feelings, and needs.

For example, if your friends have been inviting you to large indoor parties and you aren’t comfortable with their COVID safety precautions, empathize with their desire to spend time together and try to understand why they might be prioritizing social time over safety. You can do this without feeling that your own perspective or values need to be compromised.

Often, simply by validating and empathizing with our relationship partners, we can diffuse conflict. We might not “solve” a problem in this way, but we can heal the relationship and avoid hurting each other’s feelings in the moment. Once peace has been reached, we can achieve a better emotional state for problem-solving together.