How to Navigate Tough Conversations

Updated: Sep 26, 2020

We hear over and over again "how important communication is", and "they clearly didn't communicate well", or "communication is key", but how often do families and friends talk about how to be better communicators? How they like to communicate? How often they prefer to communicate? It is rare. While there is a movement for discussing boundaries more openly, communication continues to fall into that grey area where it is "kind of" talked about, implied, or non-existent.


Communication is hard and it takes constant practice, but it gets easier every time you work on it. How do I know? I was raised in a typical Southern home where toxic masculinity was the only way to express your emotions. Pissed off? Go punch a wall. Have an issue with someone? Talk about them behind their back instead of resolving it. Feeling grief? We will leave you to 'handle that' until you're ready to join us. We did NOT talk about emotions. Directly asking for what you wanted was considered presumptuous and "unladylike". And, God forbid I stood up for myself in a conversation with my parents (anyone else fear the wooden spoon?).


To be fair, I was a bit of a hell raiser for my parents and they did the best they could with the emotional resources they were given (which was even worse than my own)! I was often termed a "busy body", "bossy", "too talkative", and I "had a mind of my own". As an adult I know these are great qualities, but as a kid I only saw these terms of "endearment" as a personal attack against me. As a child you often feel the need to conform to your families habits in order to feel safe from rejection or shame. I felt that I stood out because of these "issues" and tried adopting a more introverted nature around my family. Afterward, I always felt out of place and out of alignment, never quite getting anything right socially.


So, how did I "fix" myself? I shut up (literally and emotionally) and I didn't rock the boat by asking for what I wanted. Instead, I implied what I wanted.... we all know how "well" that works!


I'm sure you have your own story as to why you struggle to communicate or you wouldn't be reading this. If you haven't found the cause, I encourage you to work through the "why" and the "when" so you can empower yourself to make change. Thankfully, finding this blog is a great start!


This post is meant to introduce you to the concepts and give you a boost in the right direction, but the work is up to you. Use this intro to improve upon or learn new communication techniques that work for you! And remember, when working on YOUR communication skills, not everyone will respond the way they "should" because you can't control other people's reactions. You can control your side of the discussion, however, and lead by example. People respect consistent and clear communication, even if they don't like the message.


Open communication is the key to healthy relationships—my example


I can't tell you how many times I've heard stories of people who impulsively lash out at their partner, parent, friend, or coworker. The cause is almost always the sametheir needs went unmet for too long, they suppressed their frustration, time goes on, and this cycle repeats, and then one day they explode! Instead of this explosion leading to a productive conversation with results, your reaction often leaves the other person hurt and confused. I mean, how many times could some version of the phrase, "I'm feeling ______ and need more ______ from you so that _______" resolve your issues so that you're happier? But, relationships are messy, we're not perfect beings, and we have real human emotions. Unfortunately for us, this often leads to navigating reactions instead of making productive change.


I once let myself get to the explosion point with Evan (my partner in life). Anyone else fight about household chores? Evan and I have an equal partnership, but I was feeling like I contributed a lot more to the chores. I tried to communicate, "hey, please help around the house more", but as you can imagine this did not help. I thought that I was communicating my needs at that point, but I wasn't.... and I was PISSED that he still wasn't helping. I mean, I asked him to help, but I didn't give him any guidelines or explanation to clarify my expectations. And as we know from Brene Brown, "clear is kind"! So of course his response was, "well, tell me what I should do then and I'll do it". Oh boy. Anyone else fuming with me?!


I was annoyed that I had to tell him what I wanted. I mean... isn't he an adult? Shouldn't he know what needs to be done?! THE SINK HAS TOOTHPASTE IN IT FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! CAN'T HE SEE THAT?! But I failed to realize that we all have different experiences in life that shape our expectations and wants. Without communicating them clearly to the other person, we're expecting them to apply their best guess. It's like the (crass) expression my dad always used when someone didn't use their blinker, "I can't look at your ass and read your damn mind".


Unfortunately for Evan, I didn't learn how to better communicate my needs until after multiple bombs went off. One of the first bombs dropped soon after we were married. One afternoon as I was cleaning around the house and Evan watched Brooklyn Nine-nine (hilarious show, btw). I already told him I wanted more help earlier in the month and nothing had really changed. I didn't want to be the "nagging wife" by asking him to help me again. Instead, I beep-bopped around the house making a lot of noise and huffing while I cleaned hoping he got the cue (I know, mature). Surprise, surprise, he did ... NOT (men...). Later that day I'm feeling tired, just cooked dinner, and decided to sit down for a glass of wine. Evan comes into the living room and he gets up on his soap box, "you use so many pots when you cook and you never clean as you go! When I cook I try to do dishes along the way so that it's less of a mess to cleanup afterward. Could you try to do this when you cook?"....... Y'all. To say that I was seeing red is putting it lightly. I was LIVID and the fuse on my bomb finally made contact. I'll spare you my (vulgar) response to his question, but you can imagine how I reacted.. ;)


After my explosion, Evan just STARED at me. Rightfully so, he was dumbstruck, confused, and couldn't help but ask, "why are you so upset about doing the dishes as you go? What is the big deal!?". But if you've been in my shoes before, you know that it's not about the dishes. At this point, I had to leave the room. I needed time. As the smoke cleared, I sat down and rage journaled like my pre-teen self used to. I let my anger RIP through those pages. After a few hours and a lot of reflection, I realized that his help with the housework was not the core of the problem and really wasn't what I wanted to ask. The root of the issue was that his lack of help conflicted with one of my core valuesfairness.


I needed to feel like we were both contributing equally to the "gender roles" and I felt like I was being forced into the 1950's housewife role doing majority of the cooking and cleaning (damn Southern roots). As the main contributor to the household income, I felt that there was a huge disparity between our contributions. While he helped with mowing, grilling, cleaning the air filters, etc., I wasn't seeing him contribute enough to the jobs that are typically seen as "woman jobs" (HATE that I even said it). You know, dusting, mopping, laundry, sweeping, etc. And, for the record, these are not woman jobs. They are any gender jobs! It is the 21st century y'all, we need to split these equally. Additionally, I was struggling with the "gentlemen club" at work and already had a lot of anger and resentment about my position as a woman within a male dominated industry. I admit, I had a lot of work to do on myself, but I needed to be met halfway.


I wrapped up my thoughts in my journal, thought about the best way to have this conversation, and went in for the killI mean convo. ;) When I communicated all of these feelings and thoughts to Evan, it made a lot more sense to him. I gave him a reasonable explanation as to why the household chores mattered so much to me and my values. It wasn't that I want a spotless house all of the time or that I was being controlling. It was that I wanted a partner that was thoughtful enough to want to help me and share the burden of home ownership. Initially his response was "well then just tell me what you want me to do". EYE ROLL.


Friends, asking your partner to give you a list of chores to do is asking them to carry the mental burden of being a household manager in addition to all of the other hats they're (probably) wearing. Isn't it enough to be the CEO, the CIO, and the CRO of the house? Now you want me to be the COO too?! C'mon...I couldn't help but think, "you're an adult and shouldn't have to be told how you can help around the house". Partners, this is where you can step in and step up. Instead of asking for a to-do list like a teenager trying to earn an allowance, observe what your partner likes to have done and start taking over some of the tasks. Marriage is a partnership, not a job.


Thankfully, we found a way to meet in the middle. We sat down, created a list of things we like to see done around the house, and committed to doing 5 tasks every week, each. And I had to work on resetting my own expectations. ;) It wasn't reasonable for us to have a magazine ready house at every moment of the day (I guess)...


I know you didn't come here to learn about how to divvy up household chores (probably). However, use this as an example of a conversation that could have been so much more productive and pleasant had I known how to communicate my needs better. Thankfully, I've expanded upon this skill set and feel more confident asking for things I want/need from friends, coworkers, parents, etc. It's allowed me the strength to clearly set boundaries, be more transparent with others, and its given other people the permission to treat me in the same way. By setting this example and using it with others, we all feel better about our relationship(s).


7 Steps to effectively communicate your needs


First lesson, there isn't a perfect science to communicating effectively since everyone reacts differently. We all have different experiences and demons in life that determine how much, how little, or how personally we take a conversation. With that in mind, here are some tips to help you on YOUR journey to be a more effective communicator:


1. Figure out what you really want


This is the CORE of the issue. Like my above scenario, it wasn't the act of doing housework that I struggled with. It was the way the housework made me feel, how it conflicted with my values, and the narrative that I thought it communicated about me. This will take some work at first because it's not natural to expose yourself to the heart of an issue. Your brain usually does a great job trying to distract you from the root cause. A lot of times, these issues can be buried under MANY layers and excuses. It is your job to funnel the issues down until you reach the core. You will know when you're there because it will be a fact, it will not involve the views of any one else, and it will be a vulnerable thing to admit. It often starts with phrases like "I struggle with" or "I feel". Until you've done this work a lot with yourself or with a therapist, it can be challenging to identify at first. I've found that journaling will often help me get to the "why".


2. Choose your communication strategy


Determine how you will communicate this to the other person. You probably know them well enough to gauge their reactions, so do your best to anticipate them and adjust your messaging accordingly. Decide on the right time and strategy:


- When should you bring 'the ask' up (i.e. not immediately after a huge fight)?

- What messaging could help the other person understand your perspective?

- What do you intend to ask for?

- How do you intend to ask (i.e. not in a confrontational or accusatory manner!)?

- Is this one conversation or the first of many? Don't try to do too much too soon.


The key is to approach the other person in a tactful way once you have answered all of the above questions. You don't want to make more work for yourself by asking the other person for a need or want in a way that you know is going to set them off. Additionally, you do not want to overwhelm yourself OR the other person by trying to tackle too many issues in one convo. That is a quick way to ensure the other person shuts down and does not engage in a fix. In the long term, running through these series of questions will help you master uncomfortable conversations.


3. Know how the conversation is going to go ahead of time


This is where manifestation comes in. You need to KNOW how the conversation is going to go and how it will resolve to your benefit. If you go into the conversation with a "they're not going to change" attitude, guess what... they're not. You might as well stop while you're ahead and not even have the conversation if that is your honest belief. So, get mentally prepped. Take a minute or 20 to think through EXACTLY how the convo will play out. Anticipate any objections and have your responses ready. FEEL the emotions you're going to experience once they agree with you (relieved, joyful, happy, excited, etc.) and step into them beforehand. Not only will this help you manifest the outcome you want, but it will ensure you approach the conversation with the confidence you need to be successful.


4. State the facts first


Understanding the facts and setting them straight will not only help the other person see things from your perspective, but it will remind you of your "why" while boosting your confidence. Starting off with the facts FIRST also helps you get organized and ensures that the other person is on the same page as you from the beginning. Note, we're saying facts and NOT opinions. When dealing with emotional topics the challenge is turning an opinion into a fact. To do this, you could say something like, "when you said this, it made me feel like this", or "I felt undervalued when....". The other person cannot negate how something made you feel. They cannot disprove or take this away from you. To that end, stay away from sentences like, "you intentionally did this to hurt me", or "you were trying to piss me off", or "you clearly played favorites" because these are great examples of how to start an argument. These do not, however, help you communicate effectively or bring resolution. Stating the facts will get you both on the same page and show the other person that you're trying to resolve the situation in a healthy and mature way. This helps create an open space for a clear conversation.


5. Set clear expectations


Let the other person know EXACTLY what you want (don't make me mention my dad's quote again)! ;) If you want something from a coworker, tell them exactly what you need and WHY such as, "I'd like to see a greater attention to detail on client on-boarding documents. It is the first thing a client receives from us and it's important to set a professional tone from the beginning. Typos and errors on the first document they see can hurt our credibility before we've had a chance to develop trust" or "the designs haven't utilized our corporate branding. Please use XYZ so that we stay consistent with our brand to show our clients the type of professional product they can expect from us" or whatever 'the ask' looks like for you. But, make sure you explain 'the ask'. An ask with a clear explanation will help the other person understand your values and expectations. This will also help your overall relationship as you establish a sense of mutual respect and trust. Otherwise, their mind might wander and they may believe that you do not respect them or their time (it happens a lot!). Clear is kind in communication.


6. Show gratitude and set a time to check-in


Alright, so everything goes well and progress is being made. Be sure to let the other person know that you're noticing their efforts and that you're grateful for it! This will re-enforce the behavior (Pavlov anyone?) and keep them inspired to work with you. At the end of the day, we can be pretty basic humans! We like appreciation and acknowledgement, so don't take it for granted. Set an internal clock for yourself to check-in. If they've already slipped up, bring it up again and see if there are other solutions that could work better for you both. And feel free to communicate your check-in timeline! This is a great practice in life, especially in the workplace. Setting clear expectations and timelines to work with always helps remove ambiguity and potential disappointment. That way you both know there will be an opportunity to voice any concerns on both sides which you definitely want so that the lines of communication are open both ways. Maybe there is an alternative solution or process that still helps you both get what you want in a less painful way!


7. Be consistent


You've put all of this effort into addressing the issue and growing as a persondon't let yourself step backwards by not continually "enforcing" the ask. If the other person messes up again, address it in the moment. It will feel awkward at first, but everyone will be more comfortable knowing that you will ask for what you need when you need it. Otherwise, you can end up in that "shoot I didn't ask initially... isn't it too late now?" scenario (and if you're already in this scenario, just own it and let them know you should have asked sooner....then make the official ask). People like clarity and we can respect people, even very particular people, when their expectations are clearly defined and do not fluctuate. In fact, people will feel more "safe" in their relationship with you when you're not afraid to ask for what you want. They will no longer worry about meeting your (unspoken) expectations.


What if the other person isn't responding to this communication style?


If you're still struggling to communicate with a particular person, and you've genuinely utilized the above tips, know that their response is not a reflection of you. Some people are not in a healthy mental space to have mature conversations as outlined above. Maybe they're still experiencing an enormous amount of grief, anger, or disappointment from a recent incident. If this is the case, give them some time and decide on a better time to address this issue (timing can be everything)! This being said, coming from self-experience, some people were not given the tools to have productive conversations or critiques without taking it personally. However, they can be taught to if an effort is made to correct this narrative (I was!). If the other person is not receptive to the conversation, determine if there is a teaching opportunity for this person at a later date, or if the person is toxic to your life.


If they're a toxic person, I'd seriously evaluate how to move forward. I'd recommend working towards distance between yourself and the other person the best you can. If you're in a romantic relationship with this toxic person, or even if they're family, you always have the right to walk away. If this is the case, I'd also strongly recommend talking to a professional about it to ensure that you can depart safely. If this isn't an option, seek guidance from someone else within the circle, organization, or family. Determine if there are other alternatives you would be willing to explore in order to move forward. However, if it conflicts with your values, see the advice above! You can always walk away even if it isn't easy or feels impossible.


Get comfortable getting uncomfortable


I hope this post helps you articulate yourself more clearly for effective communication moving forward. Remember, at first this style of communication will be really uncomfortable. Get comfortable getting uncomfortable! You're putting your needs out there openly and this can feel like a vulnerable position to be in. Refer back to the tips here as often as you need. You got this!


Podcast episode on this subject is coming soon!

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