How to Have Difficult Conversations, Part III: Talking to Someone Who Is Safe

This is the final installment of a three-part series about how to navigate difficult conversations. Part I discussed how to identify whether someone is safe before determining if, or how, to have a difficult conversation with them. Part II detailed how to engage in a complex talk with someone who is unsafe. Part III below illustrates how to have an effective hard talk with someone you trust enough to be vulnerable with.

How do I know if someone is safe? Safe people . . .

  • are trustworthy. They allow trust to be established over time and admit when they make mistakes.
  • are honest. They own up to their moments of dishonesty and work to align their words and actions.
  • are willing to grow. They are open to feedback and apologize when their behavior negatively affects you and work to change it.
  • face their issues. They recognize that their weaknesses impact others and work to grow emotionally over time.
  • actively listen and share their concerns. They actively engage in conversations through attentive listening and speak up about how you impact them, without demanding that you be perfect.
  • “greenlight” you. They accept who you are while supporting your individual development with compassion.
  • treat you with dignity and respect. They honor your humanity by sending you positive regard and treat you with kindness.
  • share power. Safe people allow you to influence them and collaborate in decision-making with you.
  • demonstrate mutuality. They give your thoughts, emotions, and needs equal importance to their own. Relationships in which mutuality exists are reciprocal in love, trust, and support. In short, the relationship is mutually beneficial.

Create a foundation that strengthens your relationship. Drs. John and Julie Gottman have spent decades conducting quantitative relationship research (especially on marital relationships), writing books, and conducting seminars about how to have successful relationships. They have applied their work to all close relationships and have data that points to the importance of the following dynamics if a relationship is to survive and thrive overtime.

The most important is to develop a strong, mutual friendship that incorporates expressing appreciation regularly for even the smallest of acts that positively impact you. Consistently expressing appreciation is the best and easiest way to fill your relationship’s “emotional bank account.” They have found that for this metaphorical bank account to stay in the black, so to speak, and not to live in a place of deficit or negative balance, each person needs to contribute five “deposits” for every one “withdrawal.” A deposit can be as simple as inquiring about the person’s day to as elaborate as planning a thoughtful activity. It can be as supportive as asking if they would like a hug, to as intimate as saying “I love you.”

The Gottmans urge us to accept each other’s bids to repair our relationship after a conflict. They identified that it generally takes people about an hour to cool off if they have become emotionally and/or physiologically “flooded” by a conflict, so they recommend initiating “time-outs” and taking breaks as often as needed to avoid escalation. They strongly encourage avoiding chronic use of the four most destructive relationship dynamics: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. They call this the “Apocalypse of the Four Horsemen,” since any one of them used repeatedly over time threatens to dissolve a relationship, and in combination the relationship is unlikely to survive. In a word, it is imperative to fight fair. Fighting fair incorporates the antidotes to the “Four Horsemen,” which include

  • using a gentle start-up (see below)
  • building a culture of appreciation
  • taking responsiblity
  • taking time-outs when flooded (physiologically self-soothing)

Finally, these relationship experts recommend accepting others’ bids to repair the connection after a conflict as soon as possible. In essence, being open to the other person’s attempts to reconnect and “make up” significantly impacts the relationship outcome. After someone reaches out a handful of times, or attempts to repair the relationship fissure, they will stop trying to reconnect. A “repair attempt,” or “bid for connection,” can be simply making eye contact or cracking a joke, or even being the first to take accountability and say “I’m sorry” for your part in the fight. This concept is called “turning toward” the other. Over time if your pattern symbolically and literally looks like moving toward each other versus moving away from each other, your relationship has a much higher likelihood of having longevity and happiness.

How can I prepare for a difficult conversation with someone I trust? In an interview I recently watched featuring Brené Brown, she suggested entering difficult conversations with “curiosity, accountability, and generosity.” Consider how much of your behavior factors into any issue in your relationship. Being humble and avoiding self-righteousness by owning your part of the problem is key to having a constructive conversation. It also sends a message that you are trustworthy and safe and that you are engaging in the dialogue from a position of mutuality. It signals that you are willing to share emotional power in the relationship, face your issues, and commit to growing over time. Being as generous as you can with others’ faults and giving them the grace to be human and imperfect (and giving that same grace to yourself!) contributes to safety when navigating differences. However, as mentioned in the previous posts in this series, if abuse is present or it is unsafe to engage in mutual sharing or generosity, protect yourself and do not make yourself vulnerable to someone who would use information about you or use your generosity to harm you or those you are responsible for.

Other ideas include inviting a trusted friend or family member to role play the conversation with you (see the “Intentional Dialogue Exercise” mentioned below), when appropriate. You could also make notes about what you want to discuss and hold them in your hand (e.g., on a sticky note) or have them nearby during the talk. Even if you don’t refer to them, knowing you could look at them might be a way to feel centered and prepared and even to redirect the conversation if needed.

How do I begin a hard talk?  Approach the other person by respecting their time and engaging them from a stance of mutuality. Invite them into a conversation with questions like

  • “Can I make a request?”
  • “Is now a good time to talk?”
  • “Do you have time to talk?”
  • “When would be a good time for you to talk?”

A difficult conversation can last a few seconds to several hours. Be flexible and take a break to cool off if the conversation has soured or become too conflictual to be productive (or if it becomes very late at night or is too early in the morning: no one functions at their best when they should be sleeping, need to eat, or need to engage in daily self-care routines). Engage in self-soothing activities (meditate, go for a walk, read or watch something enjoyable, exercise, etc) to de-flood yourself physically and emotionally, and resume the conversation on a mutually-agreed-upon time table.

Use soft, or gentle, start-ups. John Gottman’s findings predicted with 90% accuracy whether a couple in his study would divorce based on their use of “soft start-ups” or “harsh start-ups.” He found that the first three minutes of a couple’s conflict-ridden conversations almost always determine the outcome of the conflict and the fate of the couple’s marriage. Why? Because both tend to end on the same note as they begin. If most of a couple’s conflicts start gently, the marriage is likely to be stable and happy. If they consistently begin conversations harshly, their relationship is almost certainly doomed to fail.

A “harsh start-up” is full of criticism and contempt: “Where were you this afternoon? I can’t believe you didn’t call me like you said you would, AGAIN! This is just another example of how irresponsible you are. Can’t you do anything right?” A soft start-up engages the other from a position of mutuality, giving them the benefit of the doubt while being honest about their impact on you: “I waited for your call for quite a while today. I missed talking to you when you didn’t call when you said you would. This is becoming a pattern. What happened?” Soft start-ups need not be diplomatic. They simply need to be direct complaints instead of contemptuous accusations or criticisms.

Women have a significant amount of influence here because Gottman found that they start difficult discussions 80% of the time. If women use soft start-ups more often than not, these conversations are likely to be productive and their relationships are likely to be happy and long-lasting.

Share power by accepting influence. Men also have influence when it comes to a relationship’s success. According to Gottman’s research of married heterosexual couples,

“[M]en who allow their wives to influence them have happier marriages, and are less likely to divorce than men who resist their wives’ influence. Statistically speaking, when a man is not willing to share power with his partner, there is an 81% chance that his marriage will self-destruct.”

That’s a staggering statistic. Allowing influence is a form of sharing power and it appears few intimate relationships can survive without it. It looks like “accepting, understanding, and allowing your partner’s perspective, feelings, and needs into your decision-making process.”  It’s important to point out that this much-needed skill is not only necessary in heterosexual relationships. On the contrary, Gottman’s reasearch shows that gay and lesbian couples are remarkably more skilled at accepting influence from each other than straight couples. (Read more about outcomes for same-sex couples in John Gottman’s “12 Year Study” here and here.)

Make *valid* complaints, *reasonable* requests, and state positive needs. Be aware when your complaints veer into territory that is not something someone can realistically change. For instance, complaining that someone is too short isn’t fair and borders on abuse (using an extreme example here to make a point). Conversely, making a complaint about how someone’s behavior impacts you, such as how much they are contributing to the emotional or physical labor involved in the relationship, can be valid (e.g., not doing their fair share of household chores). Gottman calls this complaining without blaming.

Similarly, make requests that are manageable given their situation. It’s important to note that John Gottman’s research demonstrated that nearly two-thirds of all marital conflicts are unresolvable. Things like your mother-in-law being overbearing and intrusive will likely always persist. Insisting that your partner do something to change her personality or relationship style is not reasonable or realistic. However, a reasonable request in this kind of extended family relationship looks like expressing how you feel when your mother-in-law violates healthy boundaries and asking that your partner establish and maintain firm boundaries in terms of what she reveals to her mother about you and how much you interact with her mother as a partnership. This is an example of stating a positive need. It takes the form of “here’s how I feel [about a given situation] and here’s what I need.”

Be direct and polite, use “I” statements, allow yourself to be vulnerable, and deal with problems as they arise. For trust to remain intact, it is essential to treat the other with dignity and respect and to be polite throughout difficult conversations. However, you can be firm while being kind. Being passive aggressive or requiring someone to read your mind is not an effective way to get your needs met. Using “please,” “I would appreciate it if . . .,” and “It would mean a lot to me if . . .” can go a long way in the listener being receptive to your requests. Starting sentences with “I” can help the listener avoid defensiveness. Be authentic. Own your feelings and needs. When doing so, be as vulnerable as you can be. Mutual vulnerability deepens intimacy and can mobilize compassion for each other. Finally, address issues as they come up. Avoid letting them build up or you will have less control over how you communicate, which may negatively affect your relationship and ability to work out your differences.

Accept differences and compromise when possible. This statistic from Gottman’s research bears repeating: 69% of relationship conflict is unresolvable. He calls these conflicts “perpetual problems” because they have to do with aspects of a person that are unchangeable like their personality or lifestyle needs. Trying to devise a solution or reach a compromise about a perpetual problem is like trying to squeeze water from a stone. Instead, work to accept the other as they are and to communicate about persistent issues with a healthy dose of humor. When discussing solvable problems (which are situational in nature), negotiate solutions that accommodates each person’s “inflexible needs,” or things that are “musts” versus “wants.” Gottman admits that

“[c]ompromise never feels perfect. Everyone gains something and everyone loses something. The important thing is feeling understood, respected, and honored in your dreams.”

Practice active listening to increase mutual understanding. Incorporate mirroring, validation, and empathy by utilizing Dr. Harville Hendrix’s “Intentional Dialogue Exercise.” Take turns being the “speaker” and “receiver” (listener). This can feel awkward and even contrived at first, but practicing these effective communication tools—or even keeping the dialogue steps on hand in case you reach an impasse in your conversation—can help you both feel heard and understood, with time. The basic steps include

  • Mirroring (repeating) what the other person said to confirm that you understand what they are saying.
  • Validating that what they are saying makes sense logically.
  • Empathizing with how they must feel by stating what you imagine it is like for them emotionally to be in their shoes, so to speak.

These tools are invaluable in conflict-laden conversations. In particular, validating that the other person is not crazy or irrational for thinking or feeling a particular way is vital for them to feel understood and accepted—even, and especially, if you strongly disagree with their perspective. However, validating someone’s perspective that you oppose does not require being dishonest. It requires putting yourself in their shoes and imagining what rational conclusions they may have come to based on their life experiences, beliefs, core values, et cetera. Even periodically saying phrases like, “That makes sense,” or “I can see that” can send the message that you view their perspective and selfhood as valid.

No matter the outcome of a difficult conversation, never abandon yourself. Be true to your thoughts, feelings, needs, wishes, and desires. Verbalizing them can be an important part of validating that you are important and that what’s in your heart and on your mind is valid—even if the other person is unable to do so. Hearing yourself speak your truth from a position of power by claiming your authority as the expert on YOU can be incredibly healing and empowering.

Wendy is a psychoanalyst, licensed clinical social worker, and marriage and family therapist in private practice.

Intentional Dialogue Exercise by Dr. Harville Hendrix

KEY: Use “I” statements: “I feel hurt when you talk down to me.”

Mirror: Listen to your partner without distorting their thoughts and feelings.

SPEAKER: Uses “I” language

RECEIVER: “If I heard you right, you said . . . ”

“Did I get that right?”

“Is there more about that?”

“Did I get it all?”

Validate: “What you said makes sense because . . . ”

“Did I get that right?”

“Is there more about that?”

“Did I get it all?”

Empathize (make an educated guess/conjecture): “I can imagine that you might be feeling . . . ” or “I can see you are feeling . . . “

“Did I get that right?”

“Is there more about that feeling?”

“Did I get it all?”

Make a small, positive [reasonable] request: “Can I make a request?” (Example: “Can you come and hug me? Can you say a kind word to me?”)

Your partner should comply, if possible.

“When you are finished with your intentional dialogue, reverse roles. You are now the receiver of your partner’s feelings and should start with the mirroring exercise. With practice, you and your partner can continue to create [a healthy relationship].”



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