I was recently asked how people can have difficult conversations with love and respect for one another.
The answer is simple in concept and tough in execution: Have them.
I have worked with so many couples living in decimated relationships. When we sort through the devastation, at the bottom of the pile is always a conversation, or several conversations, that never happened but should have.
Last year, I worked with a couple where the husband had suddenly and inexplicably become withdrawn and emotionally unavailable. At the bottom of that pile, we found that he was excessively burdened by financial pressure and responsibilities. Their kids were in school full time and he wanted to talk to his stay at home wife about returning to work but he feared hurting or insulting her and he didn’t want to be seen as controlling.
Recognize the fight or flight response.
Hard conversations represent threats to the relationship. That’s why you avoid having them.
You have a thought, a feeling, or an idea and it occurs to you that the relationship might not survive it. Real or imagined, you see a threat and your fight or flight instinct kicks in. Consciously or subconsciously, you react to that tension.
You might shut down or withdraw. You might start hiding from your relationship by staying late at work, putting your focus on the kids or other people, or by becoming more isolating.
The tension you’re experiencing might make you prickly and irritable. You might look for problems where none exist or you might create them. If you can fight about something other than the hard talk, you feel a strange sense of relief. Your internal tension somehow eases, even though that doesn’t really make any sense and seems counterintuitive.
Check in with yourself.
Identify your withdrawal or irritability as a cue to check in with yourself. What’s going on? What are you worried about or distracted by? What’s on your mind?
Get clear with yourself about your worry, your fear, or your conflict.
- What do you think the problem is? How would you define it?
- What is your greatest fear come to life?
- What are your thoughts? Your feelings?
- What does your solution to this look like?
- What objections do you think the other person will have?
- What are you worried that they will think, feel, or do?
- What do you want the other person to know?
This is the key to a successful conversation. Tell the person what you want them to know or to think. Often, when we imagine that something is going to be hard to talk about or is going to start a conflict, our anxiety runs the show.
In a fit of nerves, we rush through what we’re thinking and what the problem is that the person doesn’t hear what we’re saying. They’re responding to our anxiety and worry more than our words. That’s how misunderstandings start.
Set the conversation up for success: Hon, I’m feeling nervous here but I think we have to talk about something. I am worried that we’re going to end up in a fight and I don’t want that. I really need you to hear me out.
When you start the conversation by telling the person where you are at and how you are feeling, they are more prepared to listen and be in tune to your intention.
Start at the beginning: I have been really distracted and discouraged lately. Our finances have been stressing me out a bit. Savings has always been really important to us but soon, your car is going to need to be replaced and it’s only a matter of time before we’re going to have to address our aging roof. I’m starting to feel overwhelmed. We’re not living paycheck to paycheck yet but soon, we’re not going to have very much to put into savings.
So often people start these conversations with their solution. These conversations fail because the person listening has not been let in on the problem or where it started. Include the person in the beginning. Don’t just define the problem with “we don’t have enough money”. Whether you intend to or not, the person will likely hear you blaming them. If you lead with your thoughts and feelings, you are making the problem about you.
Address the other person’s perspective: I know you’ve relied on me to take care of this while you focus on the kids and household. It’s been so great watching you with the girls. I’m so glad you’ve been able to stay at home with them. Being the best parents we can be is important to me and I don’t want to compromise on that in any way if we don’t have to.
By including the other person right at the beginning, you’re letting them know that you’re aware of them and of their thoughts and feelings. You’re assuring them that they matter, too.
Define the problem: Hon, I am embarrassed to say this but I don’t think our income is going to cover expenses for much longer. I am not sure how we’re going to do this and I think we are going to have to make some changes or sacrifices.
By including your feelings in this, you are giving the person all of the information, not just the facts. Of course this is vulnerable but this is the kind of honesty that will keep you connected while you problem solve.
Ask for help in finding the solution: Would you mind looking at the numbers with me? Am I missing something? I need a second set of eyes on this. I could use your perspective and need your help in finding a solution.
Get on the same side as the person. Yes, you may disagree on potential solutions but by inviting their input and perspective, you’re letting them know you see them as part of the solution and you are assuring them that they absolutely have a say in how things go.
Be clear about your non-negotiables when suggesting your solution: As we figure this out, I need you to understand that I am losing sleep over this. I know this is a struggle everyone has but I need us to figure out a way to increase the money coming in or decrease the money going out. I’ve been thinking that we might need you to return to some kind of part time work while the kids are in school.
This is where it gets tough and where you will feel like you might throw up. However, more often than not, the conflict starts here because people aren’t clear about their non-negotiables. If you’re going into the conversation knowing what you need as part of the outcome (Here, an increase in income or decrease in spending) say so. Don’t pretend it isn’t true or else when the other person responds with ways of decreasing your worry, you are going to end up fighting.
Allow the other person time to react without reacting, yourself: I’m sure I am catching you off guard with this. This has been on my mind for a while and I am only just letting you in on it. I tried to protect you from the stress and burden but it’s just not working. We need to handle this together.
They might go into their own stress response. That’s ok. You had way more time to get ready for this talk than they did. Where they are right now isn’t where they will always be. Let them react and spin without jumping on them, even if they start with a flat out no. That might not be where they land.
Compromise and Negotiate: Admittedly, you returning to work is an obvious answer for me but I know it might not be the only answer. What do you think? What are your ideas?
Stay calm and steady. Stay open to solutions. Negotiation doesn’t mean that you are hearing no, that your worries are being discounted, or that you’re wrong for being concerned. Compromise is coming together for a solution that works for both of you.
When one person in a relationship has a problem, two people have a problem.
Come together on it, strengthen your relationship and solidify your connection with clear, honest communication. Share your feelings. Listen to the other person. Work together to find a solution that meets both of your needs.
It’ll take a lot of words, for sure, but this is how you stay on the same page.