4 Steps to Handling Difficult Conversations

A man and woman on opposite sides of a door, after discovering an infidelity.

Difficult conversations can lead to anxiety, among many other things.

We’ve all been there, though.

Loud voices.

Accusing words.

Cold shoulders.

Heated discussions.

These are just a few signs of relationships and conversations that are on the verge of explosion. How we deal with these tough moments, in our actions and our language, is important – not only to maintain healthy relationships with others but also to preserve our own peace of mind and self-esteem.

Here are four crucial communication skills and steps that will help you manage a difficult conversation without detrimental confrontation.

1) Speak directly with the other person


  • Practice with a supportive person
  • ­Notice body language and tone

Let’s say you have had a disagreement, a misunderstanding or even an argumentative fight with someone, and you want to resolve it. It is best to speak directly with the other person involved.

Ask for a time that is convenient for them and agree to talk in person.

It may take some courage to speak up and have a difficult conversation with someone, so practicing with a supportive friend may be helpful.

Be convincing with your body language and your words. Remember that 80 percent of your communication will be non-verbal.

Practice being calm, as your tone of voice is also crucial in keeping difficult conversations from heading toward a heated confrontation.

2) Soften the conversation during difficult conversations


  • Don’t blame
  • ­Use “I” statements

When discussions lead off in a negative and accusatory way, it can make things worse instead of better.

Psychologist John Gottman suggests using a “soft start-up” to prevent major arguments when differences are present by bringing up problems gently and without blame. Making a critical remark off the bat will only cause the other person to be defensive.

His research reveals that 96 percent of the time, you can predict the outcome of a 15-minute conversation based on the first three minutes of the interaction.

Also, when sharing your opinion or request, use “I” statements as opposed to “You” statements, which only point out the problems and bad behavior you feel the other person has.

For example, instead of saying, “You never listen to me” or “You always do (this or that),” say something like, “I feel frustrated/confused/not appreciated when (this) happens.”

Being sarcastic and using the terms “always” or “never” are likely to cause immediate defensiveness.

Soften your next oppositional conversation, and if possible, begin it on a positive note. Discussions invariably end on the same note they begin.

3) Be a good listener


  • Don’t interrupt
  • ­Check for understanding

Perhaps one of the most precious and powerful gifts we can give another person is to really listen to them, to listen with quiet, fascinated attention, with our whole being, fully present.

Try to withhold any judgment and do not interrupt while you are hearing all the facts and understanding his or her perspective. Ask questions to clarify their position or opinion.

Don’t get caught up in a trap if the other person is playing games, by going around and around trying to prove who is right. Sometimes agreeing to disagree is the only option.

Working toward mutual understanding and respect is the goal, in the midst of differing opinions. Being listened to and, more importantly, being heard is a fundamental need we all have.


4) Be solution-focused


  • ­Focus on one issue
  • ­Remember the value of the relationship

In resolving conflicts, focus on one issue or one complaint at a time.

Try to agree on what the specific problem is, and then explore options to meet each person’s needs.

Avoiding conversations that may be difficult – because of hurt feelings or angry words spoken – may cause more problems. Each day that passes causes detachment for those involved and is a breeding ground for further misunderstandings.

Also, remember the value of the relationship. Whether it is with a friend, a co-worker, a neighbor or a family member, focusing on the benefits of reconciliation may give you the boost you need to work through the problems.


Communication is what connects all relationships.

The words and actions we use can reveal a variety of thoughts and emotions, from love or excitement to anger and resentfulness.

Practice these four steps to having a difficult conversation without confrontation, and greater peace in your relationships, improved health for yourself and less stress for all will result!

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