We Need to Talk: Your Survival Guide for Tough Conversations

woman and man having a serious conversation
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The four scariest words in the English language might just be “we need to talk.” If you felt a sinking feeling of dread from merely reading them, then you’re not alone. Those words often signal an awkward, unpleasant conversation about a topic that nobody involved wants to discuss.

Conflict happens. Even in the happiest marriages, the most loving families, and the most relaxed workplaces. Open, honest communication is usually the best way to resolve conflict. But let’s be honest: it’s also a total drag.

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So how do you cope with tough conversations? Is there a way to express your needs without making a big deal out of it? Can you have a civil conversation with that one coworker whose ideas completely clash with yours?

Don’t worry, I’m here to help.

In the Workplace

Workplace conflict is fodder for many advice columns–and it usually seems to revolve around the break room fridge. Often, that conflict is about one thing on the surface but actually about something else.

You might think that you’re furious with John because he constantly taps his pencil on conference calls, but maybe you’re really mad because he got a promotion you wanted. Or maybe you’re just frustrated with your job in general and have fixated on the tapping. In any case, before you confront anyone, check your own mindset first.

If you have a minor conflict with a coworker that could be solved with a simple conversation, guess what? It’s time to have that chat. Keep the tone pleasant but direct and address whatever it is that’s been leading you to stress-eat cheese at your desk. Make it clear what you want: For John to be more mindful of how the noise affects everyone’s ability to concentrate during meetings.

Much of the time, the other person doesn’t even realize that their behavior is a problem. If you are that person, apologize and correct the behavior. Unless you think the other person is being completely unreasonable, in which case an impartial third party could be helpful in smoothing things over. That might be your immediate supervisor or HR; don’t rope in a coworker to play referee.

If you’re the boss and need to have a chat with an employee, you might be dreading it. Many of us–especially women–don’t enjoy conflict, let alone dishing out discipline. One really important piece of advice is to focus on the issue, not the person. In fact, that works for pretty much all inter-personal conflict. Janine isn’t a bad person; she just needs to file her reports correctly.

With Your Family

The holidays are a time when family gets together–sometimes, the only shared meal between multiple generations that you’ll enjoy all year. Thanks to 2020, Zoom get-togethers are likely to be more common than in-person dinners. Unfortunately, that probably won’t eliminate the traditional holiday squabbles.

One piece of advice upfront: Avoid being passive-aggressive. That never deescalates a conflict.

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Family dynamics are always complicated–although, to be fair, some are more complicated than others. If your family tree is split between groups that hold opposing values, it can be challenging to find common ground. Sometimes, the best course is to simply rule certain topics as off-limits and then refuse to engage.

Remind yourself that “debating” hot-button issues over the dinner table has never changed anyone’s mind–but it has ruined plenty of holiday meals. Every time Aunt Daisy or Uncle Don brings up the taboo topic, deflect and disengage. Eventually, they’ll get tired.

What about more serious conversations with your immediate family? Raising a sensitive or unpleasant topic with the people you love is probably the last thing you want to do. Putting it off won’t make anything easier. Wait until you’re not angry or scared to have the conversation, though. Speaking from a place of turbulent emotions could lead to a meltdown on one or both sides.

It’s key to emphasize love, concern, and respect during these conversations. If you need to chastise a child or have a tough talk with your aging parents about their future, hold onto the love you have for them and keep it at the forefront of your mind. Be honest about what ever prompted the conversation.

With your closest loved ones, you should also be prepared to discuss the topic and answer questions, too. Listen–as in really listen, not just nod until it’s your turn to speak again–and be open to reaching a compromise if needed.

Between Partners

Sometimes, the person you love the most can also be the hardest to talk to. In a perfect world, romantic relationships are built on trust, communication, and respect. But I think we all know that this world is far from perfect.

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Every time you feel the need to start a conflict with your partner, take some time to think about it first. What do you want? What needs aren’t being met? Are you making assumptions about what they think? How much of this conflict is about the need to be right?

Choose a good time to talk. That means ruling out any moment when either of you is in a rush or obviously stressed out about other things. Depending on your partner’s level of anxiety, scheduling a time to talk could either be helpful or a ticket to hours or days of agonized overthinking.

More than any other relationship in your life, fights with your partner can get nasty. That’s usually because the stakes are so high. Try to stay calm, but–and this is really important–refrain from telling the other person to calm down. You don’t get to tell your partner how they feel. If you’re facing an emotional onslaught, try not to escalate. Remind yourself of why you’re having this conversation and listen to what your partner is saying.

When partners fight, it can become an all-or-nothing battle. You always say that! You never help out around the house! You’re always too busy! You never listen! Those statements might feel true, especially in the heat of the moment, but they’re not based on facts.

Going into a discussion with an all-or-nothing attitude often leads to ultimatums or even scorched-earth tactics that can permanently damage a relationship. And all you wanted them to do was to unload the dishwasher in the mornings!

Okay, but what about when it’s time to break up? The most awkward of all conversations is the one that ends a relationship. That’s probably why so many people want to avoid it entirely. People will stay in irrevocably broken relationships way too long–or ghost their ex.

Don’t start this conversation unless you truly want to end the relationship. Listen to the other person, but stay firm and remember your goal. You don’t need a reason to break up, so don’t feel pressured to supply one. Simply wanting to no longer be in the relationship is enough.

Respect your former partner–and respect yourself, too. There’s no way to do this without hurting their feelings; after all, you are literally rejecting them. It’s tough, but that’s part of life. Once you’ve initiated the breakup, your ex’s feelings aren’t yours to soothe anymore.

Oh, and this should go without saying, but no part of these conversations can take place over text. Especially not “We need to talk.”

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