Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
Have you ever put off a difficult conversation and wondered why?
I was in a therapy session with a client recently who has been experiencing difficulties in her relationship. She asked for support but her boyfriend has been inattentive to her needs. They seemed to be caught in a cycle that looked something like this:
He starts out attentive to her needs, but as time goes on, he becomes increasingly self-focused and is only interested in doing activities that he enjoys.
In the beginning, she brushed this off and made excuses. Now, she has run out of excuses. She feels ignored and unimportant in the relationship.
Resentment starts building toward him and she starts to withdraw. Her communication becomes limited, her text responses are curt, and she’s no longer present in the relationship.
Eventually, he starts to pick up on her emotional absence, a fight ensues, and they “take a break.”
After a short break, the boyfriend realizes the effects of his actions and apologizes. They make up, and he takes ownership of his mistakes and makes promises about how he’ll act differently.
Unfortunately, nothing ever changes and the same cycle repeats itself. However, the cycle becomes shorter and shorter each time it repeats and the breaks happen more frequently.
Recently in therapy, my client came to the realization it was time to end the relationship. We made a plan for what she was going to say, how she was going to do it, and she committed to putting herself and her needs first.
When the time came to have the break up conversation, she didn’t. She came back the next week and told me she decided to “kick the can down the road” one more time and put off having “the talk.”
Why did she do this? Why is putting off important conversations potentially harmful?
The exchange above is one example of many types of conversations that are difficult to have. It might actually be one of the most difficult.
I’m sure you can imagine the feeling of the deep pit in your stomach when you send or receive a text that only says, “We need to talk.”
Cue the anxiety!
What is it about this conversation and others that makes them difficult?
At some point in your life, you’ve probably had a difficult conversation with one of these groups of people:
- Your child
- A family member
- Your partner or spouse
- A friend
- Your coworker
- Your boss
- A neighbor
- A manager or employee at a store
Also, difficult conversations are not just limited to breaking up with your significant other or telling your boss there is a problem at work. Here are some common difficult conversations you might encounter on a daily and/or weekly basis:
- Your food is prepared incorrectly at a restaurant and is not what you ordered
- You’re waiting in line and someone cuts in front of you
- Your neighbor is being noisy at night and affecting your sleep
- Your roommate eats your leftovers
- Your partner forgets to take out the trash
- You’ve waited well past your appointment time at the doctor
- You find out someone disciplined your child in a way you do not like
- Your friend shared something with someone else you told them in confidence
How therapy/therapists can help:
One of the benefits of therapy is talking through or rehearsing difficult conversations ahead of time. Your therapist is the ideal person to help you role-play a scenario since they are a neutral party and likely knows what parts of the conversation you might struggle with based on your personal history.
They can help you practice working through those difficult moments in a safe environment where you can make mistakes without being judged. Another major benefit of rehearsing is it is a form of exposure therapy. By experiencing this anxiety during a practice conversation, you learn that anxious thoughts about the conversation are unlikely to come true and you in fact can cope with the anxiety. With more practice and exposure, you will eventually become less anxious. This is because your mind and body will become more skillful in tolerating the anxiety. Also, you’ll have a chance to learn that you can cope with the uncomfortable feelings of anxiety without your worst fears coming true.
Reasons why a hard conversation might be difficult for you:
- History of anxiety – especially social anxiety!
- Parents or caregivers not modeling effective communication or conflict resolution skills when you were a child
- Fear of conflict
- Tendency to “people-please” or “not rock the boat”
- Difficulty controlling emotions under stress or pressure
- Shutting down when feeling overwhelmed
What is the reason you put off having these conversations?
No matter the reason you keep struggling to have difficult conversations or keep putting them off, there is one common denominator making the problem worse – Avoidance (AKA: procrastinating, delaying, putting off, “kicking the can down the road”).
When we experience anxiety, we typically have some accompanying thoughts like, “Something bad is going to happen.” Of course, we try to avoid that bad thing from happening. This is our mind and body’s way of keeping us safe.
However, these thoughts are usually exaggerated or out of proportion to what is actually likely to happen. When we avoid anything, it temporarily relieves our anxiety. The problem with avoidance is, we never learn how to cope with what is making us anxious.
If we were to face it, usually we learn…
- Our expectations were inaccurate
- We actually do have the ability to cope
- Or it wasn’t as scary after all
Avoidance is an important and complicated subject in therapy and psychology – so look forward to more content on that later.
How to cope with difficult conversations
Here are concrete steps you can take to better manage the anxiety from difficult conversations. I’ve included tips to remain engaged even when your mind and body might be telling you to run for the hills:
- Take time before the conversation to prepare and center yourself
- Try to schedule the conversation ahead of time. If possible, ask the person if they are available to speak at a certain time. This way, you can prepare what you are going to say ahead of time. If you need to, write out what you want to say! There is no shame in needing to use a notecard or piece of paper to collect yourself during the conversation.
- Right before the conversation, do an activity that will help ground and center you. This could be some quiet meditation and deep breathing, listening to an inspiring song, or repeating positive affirmations out loud. This will help to calm your anxiety and give you a sense of control.
- Go into the conversation with an open mind
- Know the conversation might not go your way, and that’s okay. Oftentimes, we just want to feel heard and acknowledged by the other party. Using the right kind of language and communicating in an effective way will increase the chances of that happening.
- At the end of the day though, it’s necessary to accept we do not have control over others and only have control over ourselves.
- Use “I” statements
- When speaking to the other person or party, use statements to help minimize any defensiveness from the other party.
- A good formula for this is: I felt ___ when ____ happened.
- For example, “You didn’t take the trash out last night, which you know I hate!” is much different than saying, “I felt an extra burden yesterday after the long day I had when I came home and the trash wasn’t taken out.”
- When you use an I statement and describe the impact something had, the other person can not reasonably argue or rebut that, since those are your feelings you are sharing, not theirs.
- Focus on listening and responding rather than reacting
- If you expect the other person to listen and respond to you with understanding, it’s necessary for you to demonstrate the same courtesy.
- Instead of thinking about what you are going to say next, focus on what the person in front of you is saying. Then, summarize what you heard. Example: “This is what I heard you say…” or “What I’m hearing is…”
- Take a break if you need to, but always set a time to circle back
- If things start to get heated, acknowledge that.
- Offer a time for both of you to return to the discussion at a later time once you have each had some time to cool down. It’s important to finish the conversation.
- As I saw with my client, each time she “kicked the can down the road” and put off the conversation, anger festered, and resentment built.
- It’s okay to agree to disagree
- If towards the end of the conversation, you still do not see eye to eye, you can always acknowledge you’re unlikely to reach an agreement.
- We live in an “either/or” and “this or that” society that often offers no room for gray.
- Life is complex, and no two people are the same. The goal is to meet in the middle.
- Remember that everything is data
- If at the end of it, you tried your best and did the above but the other party was unresponsive, unreasonable, or disrespectful, then that is data to file away in your mind about how that person resolves (or doesn’t resolve) conflict. It might be useful to explore the relationship’s dynamic in therapy.
- One of the unexpected effects of therapy for many clients as they begin to learn and use effective communication skills is learning some of their relationships are no longer serving them in a positive way. Having a therapist help you navigate which relationships are beneficial, and which are no longer serving you, as you become more skilled and move forward is helpful.
For my client, it was helpful for her to understand why she kept putting off this difficult conversation with her boyfriend. She grew up in a household in which only her mother was allowed to express emotions or complain, and when her mother did, it was often aggressive and hurtful.
My client did not learn how to properly express or regulate her emotions, leading her to shut down during times of heightened emotions.
Her father, because of his own anxiety and not wanting to “rock the boat,” kept quiet and accepted the verbal abuse from his wife. Consequently, my client observed the exact opposite of workable communication and never saw healthy communication skills modeled.
My client also learned to keep quiet to avoid conflict. However, through therapy, she began to analyze her current patterns after she realized her current strategies (i.e., kicking the can down the road) were no longer serving her and just creating more resentment and problems in her relationship.
Exploring these patterns of avoidance in therapy, understanding how they were no longer serving her, and learning the tools to overcome the anxiety to have difficult conversations helped free her. She is no longer stuck in a relationship in which her needs were not being met so she could begin supporting herself.
If you identify with my client’s story and have been struggling to have difficult conversations with people in your life, call me to set up an appointment.
Together, we can better understand why you may avoid difficult conversations and create a plan to help prioritize your needs in relationships.
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