July 10, 2018
How to Initiate Tough Conversations
Whether you want to address an issue related to money, childrearing, in-laws, chores or sex, the toughest conversations are almost always the most important. And if you approach them effectively, they can also be the most fruitful and positive. However, most of us struggle to turn difficult conversations into positive interactions, because we’re often overcome by emotion and not prepared with our own expectations of outcomes.
Why do little annoyances or simple requests often snowball into bigger arguments?
Most of us wait until we’re frustrated to speak up, which is why our communication is often framed as a series of *complaints* and/or *criticisms* to which our partners respond with defensiveness and/or aggression. If you speak up before you become frustrated or resentful, you’ll find that the results of your conversations are more fruitful.
So if you do want to talk about a touchy subject, how do you even begin?
I suggest a 3-step approach:
1. Start with the positive. Talk about what’s going well and offer thanks. (e.g. I really like the way you kiss me. It feels so good.)
2. Make a genuine offer. Ask what you can do to improve the situation. (e.g. Is there anything you’d like me to do differently when it comes to the way I touch you?) We tend to believe that relationship deficits are a result of our partner’s behaviour when, in fact, our own behaviours and expectations play far more significant roles in our own relationship satisfaction.
3. Ask for what you want without complaining and tell them how the request/behaviour makes you feel. (e.g. I’d love if you’d kiss me more often — like every night before we go to bed, because it makes me feel so loved/desired.)
What if your partner gets defensive, lashes out or simply withdraws/refuses to talk?
Don’t react to the way they’re reacting. Instead…
If they’re defensive (I kiss you all the time. I’m always the one being affectionate.), take responsibility first. When someone is defensive, it’s usually because they don’t want to take responsibility for their actions or for a specific situation. So highlight your role in the undesirable situation. (e.g. I know I don’t kiss you like I used to and I’m going to change that. Right now. *kiss*). Taking responsibility can be disarming, as it’s an expression of vulnerability.
If they lash out (You’re never happy. I don’t know what your problem is. Nothing I do is ever good enough.) let them know that you hear them. Offer reassurance (You’re more than enough. I love YOU. I just want to make this small change and I know I have to change too.) and remind that them you share the same goal (I want to be a better partner to you and keep the relationship strong.).
If they withdraw, try clarifying what it is you’re looking for (focus on solutions) and asking questions (I’m not asking you to change. I just want to be kissed more. Would you like that too? How do you feel about what I’m asking?). Offer them the option of talking about it later when they’re in the mood. Oftentimes withdrawal is not a matter of not caring, but a strategy to avoid conflict or loss.
Remember that you can’t control the way your partner responds, but you can control the manner in which you respond to their response. If you find yourself blaming your partner (exclusively), you likely need to step back and consider your role in their response. If you spoke differently, chose different words, approached in another way or waited for a more appropriate time, they might respond differently.
If, however, they refuse to talk about difficult topics, I suggest you see a therapist or counselor on your own (or together if they’re up for it). But don’t let their refusal to seek help be an excuse for your refusal to the same.