How to Have a Hard Conversation

By: Andelin Price

Hi there!  I see you.  Over there, the one who has been avoiding that hard conversation with your spouse about that thing that ALWAYS turns into a fight.  

 Yes, you.   

And me!  I’m that person.  At least, I was.  For YEARS! 

That was before I figured out how to have those conversations without it devolving into a huge argument every. single. time. It took me a long time to figure this out. But now that I have, I am so happy to be able to share it with you.  It’s a skill anyone can learn. 

 And the best news?  There are steps! You can easily remember them by thinking of the 4 C’s: Create Safety, Curiosity, Compassion, Conversation. 

Step 1: Create Safety for Yourself 

Creating a sense of safety is the most important step (which is why it’s the first one).  If your nervous system is on high alert, your fine motor skills and your logical thinking skills are harder to access.  This is physiological–you can’t override it.  If your limbic system says “no way!” it’s just not happening.  But there are lots of things you can try!   

  1. Take deep breaths.  It’s so simple, but also a very effective way to show your limbic brain that you are safe. (If you’re a researcher, there’s a whole lot of science behind the effects of breathwork. Google it.) 
  1. Trust yourself. Developing greater trust in yourself is another way to create safety for yourself.  How do you trust yourself more? You stop people pleasing. You keep strong boundaries. (That’s a whole topic in itself!) 
  1. Take responsibility for your mindset.  When you think safety comes from outside of yourself,  you feel out of control, which leads to anxiety and fear.  Even just repeating to yourself, “I am safe. I am safe. I am safe” can help you create a sense of safety. 
  1. The more solid you are in your sense of self, the more safe you will feel.  When you look to others to determine your worth, the tendency is to move toward control. (Last I checked, people don’t like to be controlled.) 

These are just a few of many ways to create a sense of safety around yourself. 

Step 2: Get Curious (The “What”) 

Ask yourself LOTS of questions! This is where you try to get into your spouse’s head.  Why did they say that?  Why did they do it that way? What might they be feeling and thinking? What might be true for them? What might be happening under  the surface? (Seriously though–never underestimate the effects of trauma on someone’s ability to act like an adult!)  

You can also get curious about yourself. What was I thinking and feeling when I made that decision?    What was my part in the initial conflict?  How did I make it easier for my spouse to show up that way?What do I hope the outcome of this conversation will be? 

 Zoom out.  Look at it from as many different angles as possible. This makes it easier to see the other’s perspective more honestly and not take it personally. 

Step 3: Find Compassion (The “Why”) 

Nobody is perfect.  We all know that.  You are doing the best you can.  Your spouse is doing the best they can.    Our brains are wired to focus on the negative. But when we can shift our focus to see the positive things too, it’s easier to be understanding and compassionate.   

 Remind yourself why you care for your spouse. Think about what you love about them.  Think about the situation, and see how they might be trying to help you, or where they might be hurting. 

It’s important to have self-compassion, too.  Beating yourself up over the past has never done anyone any good. Acknowledging your mistakes might be necessary, but you can do it without shaming yourself. 

Compassion is the path that leads to love. 

Step 4: Have the Conversation 

Set up a time to talk.  Let your spouse know in advance  that you have a hard topic you’d like to talk about.  They might need some time to prepare themselves for it, too.  Waiting for the right timing is key.  My tendency is to want to resolve things RIGHT NOW!  But if you or your spouse might be stressed, annoyed, or overwhelmed, you might want to wait for another time. Staying calm will always be easier when you start out feeling calm.  

Be really careful to check blame or shame at the door.  Speak the facts as honestly as you can.  Be willing to see your blind spots.  Be willing to be wrong.  Listen as much as you speak. Don’t interrupt your spouse. 

Pay attention to your inner emotional state, and watch for cues from your partner.  Know that it’s ok to set it aside if things start to get overheated.  Understand the difference between taking a break and walking away/shutting down.  “Walking out and slamming the door” creates more disconnection, which can be traumatizing for both of you.  If you decide to take a break, decide together when you will come back to it. 

Give yourselves grace if it doesn’t go perfectly the first time.  Having hard conversations is a skill. This is a process that takes practice.   Sometimes you have to experiment to figure out what works for you. 

I have two podcast episodes that go into more detail about this 4 step process. You can access the episodes here: 

The Marriage Bites! Podcast Episode 48: Creating Safety in Your Communication 

48. Creating Safety In Your Communication (Part 1)

The Marriage Bites! Podcast Episode 49: How to Have Hard Conversations 

49. How To Have Hard Conversations (Part 2)

Additional tips: 

Have the conversation while on a walk.  Walking helps stimulate both sides of your brain, making it easier to stay emotionally regulated.   Plus, a little exercise and fresh air do a lot of good, too. I love the concept of going on an “anger walk.” An anger walk is where you go for a walk and give each other space to speak your frustrations and anger.  If it’s planned, it’s a lot easier not to take things personally. 

If you can’t go for a walk, you can pass a small object back and forth from one hand to the other, making sure your hands cross the midline of your body.  This stimulates both sides of your brain (similar to walking). 

Direct eye contact is not required.  Research has shown that looking people straight in the eyes can be triggering for some people. We like to talk sitting side by side, so we have the option of eye contact, but we can also look away. 

The right environment can have a big impact on how things go.  Find a neutral place.  Perhaps a semi-public place that also provides a sense of privacy, such as a park or coffee shop. Sometimes it helps people stay calm to be where they can be seen, but are out of the earshot of others.  Or maybe you prefer complete privacy, such as in your car or your bedroom.  The key is for both partners to feel comfortable and safe. 

Follow the 5/3/5/3 rule: Use a timer.  The first person gets up to 5 minutes to talk uninterrupted. Then the other person gets 3 uninterrupted minutes to respond.  Then you switch–the other person speaks for 5 minutes, and the first gets 3 minutes to respond.  Repeat as needed.  It’s really important to not interrupt each other’s time.  Be ok with silence during that time as well. Sometimes you need to give yourselves time to process. 

Go to bed angry if you need to!  Conflict is a lot harder to resolve when you’re tired and stressed.  Sometimes a good night’s rest is the reset you need.  Come back to it later, when you’re both refreshed. 

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