Why You Should Have Hard Conversations
By: Ashley Malooly, Ph.D. | August 11, 2023
…And How To Start Them
We hope for harmony in our relationships, yet disagreements are bound to arise. The closer the relationship, the more strongly we feel when disagreements emerge. When we learn how to work through conflict together, we can heal our relationships, deepen intimacy, and feel better connected. Working through conflict in a relationship can even improve your sense of self-worth! But, if you’re like me, you didn’t see conflict resolution modeled in a healthy way by your family, and you may have trouble initiating hard conversations. This article will explain why it’s so important to have these conversations and provide helpful tips to get you started.
When “Picking Your Battles” Doesn’t Work
We’ve all heard the advice from a well-meaning friend or family member to “pick your battles” to maintain peace in our relationships. While there may be some wisdom to this advice (it may not be worth getting into a screaming match with your toddler about mismatched socks, for example), it can easily be misinterpreted.
In a healthy relationship it is important not to ignore things that truly bother you or make excuses for someone else’s bad behavior. When your wants, needs, thoughts and feelings are sacrificed to avoid conflict, it can lead to problems both for you and your relationship.
When you choose to ignore or suppress your uncomfortable feelings, they might soften momentarily, but they don’t entirely go away. Chronic suppression of emotions can lead to a buildup of resentment over time. It’s like putting a lid on a pot of boiling water. The lid will contain the water and steam for some time, just like suppressing will temporarily tame those uncomfortable feelings. But eventually, the buildup of steam (or emotions) can no longer be contained. The steam will either seep out sideways such as passive aggression, or the lid may even blow off entirely, like yelling, or with an aggressive outburst, sometimes over such trivial matters like doing the dishes. By the time your emotions are expressed, they aren’t just about the present moment, but representative of months (or even years) of pent-up emotions just waiting to be released.
Research shows that difficulty expressing one’s thoughts and feelings is related to low sense of self-worth, depression, and anxiety. If your self-worth is low, then you may not think that your wants and needs matter. If you don’t think that your wants and needs matter, you are unlikely to express them.
When the people in your life aren’t told what you want and need, they are left guessing. And this is unfortunate because people are not very good at reading minds. This leads to frustration over unmet needs, lower self-worth, and trouble with mood and anxiety. This can also be a frustrating experience for friends and family, who may wish to meet your needs and have no idea how to do so.
There is Another Way
The good news is that you can learn how to communicate your wants, needs, thoughts and feelings more clearly and effectively. Assertiveness training is an evidenced-based treatment based on the idea that you have a right to express yourself to others when you can do so in a respectful way.
Learning how to be more assertive can help you to express your wants and needs effectively, approach conflict instead of avoiding it, improve your sense of self-worth, and strengthen your relationships.
Here are some tips to help get you started:
1. Get Clear on What You Are Feeling
To express your thoughts and feelings effectively, you first need to know what they are! Get curious about what’s coming up for you and give yourself permission to feel your feelings. You may need to excuse yourself from the situation temporarily and give yourself some personal time to clarify exactly what emotion you are feeling. Journaling can be a helpful tool for this process. Let your thoughts and feelings out on the page for no more than 20 minutes (so that you don’t stay stuck in ruminating or “stewing” about the problem).
2. Use “I Statements”
Do you notice the differences between these two statements?
- “I felt frustrated when you asked to borrow money.”
- “When you asked me to borrow money, you made me so frustrated!”
Notice that in the first statement, the speaker takes ownership of their thoughts/feelings. In the second, the speaker places the blame on the other person. Blame elicits defensiveness, which can quickly shut down a conversation. Speak from your own perspective, take ownership for your part of the problem and use non-defensive communication skills. Note: This does not apply in situations of abuse. If you are in an abusive relationship and wish to learn assertive communication, please seek the help of a qualified San Diego psychologist for support.
3. Lead with Emotions, not Judgments
It can be easy to create ideas about why people do what they do. This is called mind-reading, which is an example of typical mistakes in thinking. You may think your partner is being inconsiderate, or your parent doesn’t get it, or your kid is being mean. While these interpretations may not be wrong, they tend to be unhelpful and lead to defensiveness. Instead, express how their behavior makes you feel. This also helps the other person to see that their behavior has a consequence – it provokes an uncomfortable feeling in you.
4. Specify Your Wants and Needs
Challenge yourself to go beyond saying what is bothering you and express what you would like to be different. Perhaps you would prefer that your friend puts their phone down while you are talking to them. Or maybe you need your parents to listen and validate your feelings, instead of trying to solve your problem. This not only helps your loved ones to better understand your wants and needs, but also validates for you that your needs are important!
5. Approach the Conversation with an Open Mind
When you are used to avoiding difficult conversations, it can be easy to overestimate the likelihood that they will not go well. It is possible that this person has no idea how profoundly their behavior affects you! It is also possible that their perspective might change the way that you feel. Be willing to listen to the other person and be open to compromise. They may not be willing to do the exact thing that you would like, but maybe they can do something else to meet your need.
I hope that these tips help you to feel more empowered to have those hard conversations. Doing so will not only help your relationships, but your overall sense of wellbeing. Assertive communication can be hard, especially if you have a tendency to people-please or have a history of trauma. If this article resonates with you, and you would like to better understand your individual style of communication, improve your relationships and learn how to get what you need in a relationship, professional therapy at Therapy Changes can help you achieve your goals. Contact us today to schedule an appointment with a member of our talented team and start your journey of healing and growth.