Do you and your partner avoid certain topics because the conversation will become heated? Maybe you dread discussing parenting techniques or how much services for your child cost. These tips can help ease tough talks.
1. Give up the need to be right.
Even before you ask to sit down for a talk, remind yourself that it’s all about finding a solution to a problem. And that the solution will likely affect your whole family. So it doesn’t matter who’s right or wrong. What matters is that the two of you are working together to improve things. Also remember that the best and most creative solutions often come from embracing different points of view.
2. Choose the right time to talk.
Nobody likes being buttonholed right when they walk in the door from work or when they’re in a rush. Instead, chat when you’re both at your best. Ideally, try to talk after you’ve both had a chance to unwind and can focus on your conversation. Even if you’ve set up a time in advance for your discussion, it’s a good idea to ask, “Is this still a good time to talk?” If necessary, find a better time. Your conversation will benefit.
3. Start the conversation positively.
Show how much you appreciate your partner’s willingness to talk about the difficult topic and to work with you to find a solution. You might say something like, “Thanks for talking about this issue with me. It’s really been weighing on my mind. But I always feel better when we can think things through together.”
4. Stay focused on the problem at hand.
This is not the time to bring up your relationship’s ancient history or other problems. But even if you stick to the topic, your partner might not. To keep things on track, you might say something like, “Let’s talk about one thing at a time,” or, “I’d be happy to talk about that issue tomorrow. But let’s work on this problem today.”
5. While your partner is talking, just listen.
Listening is key to making difficult conversations work. And that means truly hearing what your partner is saying when you’re having a discussion. Try to stop yourself from interrupting. Don’t start thinking about your next comment while your partner is mid-sentence. Stay present and try to absorb your partner’s comments before you start talking. And try to keep from making hasty judgments.
6. Reflect what you hear even if you don’t agree.
One way your partner will know that you’re really listening is to reflect back what you’ve heard. You might begin with something like, “Let me see if I fully understand what you’re saying….” Experts call this skill “reflective listening.” It can help keep stressful situations from escalating and get things back on track when participants are getting upset.
7. Fight fair.
Nothing kills a productive conversation faster than accusations. Don’t accuse your partner of causing the problem or of avoiding the issue. Try not to assign blame. And avoid statements like, “You always do this!” Why? Your partner is likely to feel defensive and may even counterattack. And that will probably shut down your conversation and halt whatever progress you two were making.
8. Try to find something you agree with.
Maybe you strongly believe the opposite of what your partner is saying. But is there any crossover in your feelings? Even a little consensus can help you both feel like you’re beginning to contribute to a solution. “I know you think we shouldn’t let Lily play until she’s finished her homework,” you might say. “I agree that her homework is very important, and she needs to get through all of it. I just think it’ll be easier if she gets a break in the middle.”
9. Take a time-out if you must.
No matter how hard you try, your discussion may reach a point where it’s too heated to continue. Consider setting up a time-out signal before you start. Or say something like, “Let’s stop for now,” and set a time to speak again within 24 hours. When you’re both calm, try approaching the conversation once again. If challenges persist, you might want to see a professional like a minister or a therapist to help you work through your differences.
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About the author
About the author
Lexi Walters Wright is the former community manager at Understood. As a writer and editor, she helps parents make more informed choices for their children and for themselves.
Elizabeth Harstad, MD, MPH is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital.