Simple Communication Skills to Talk about Difficult Topics

Even with the best of intentions, we often find that when communicating with our partners, the conversation can quickly escalate and get off track. Communication is complicated in that when we speak with our partner about a certain topic, we are seldom only talking about that issue. Our past experiences and relationships, as well as our fears all influence how we perceive a situation with others, in turn, influencing how we communicate. When conflict shows up in our relationship, we may become concerned that our relationship is doomed and may even consider ending it.

However, it’s not the presence of conflict in a relationship that is unhealthy, it’s how we communicate that can be. The way a couple communicates can provide information regarding the overall health of the marriage. In fact, Dr. John Gottman, the nation’s foremost marriage expert, conducted research in which he observed how couples communicate with one another and predicated with an over 90% accuracy rate, which couples would divorce. However, when couples are able to curb their need “to be right” and can approach communication from a place of mutual respect and understanding, even the most difficult issues can be discussed in a healthy manner. 

1. Talk about yourself

While talking about yourself may not sound like the best way to communicate with a partner, the key is in the the way you approach a topic. When you are feeling frustrated with your partner, try approaching it by talking about how you are feeling, rather than focusing on what they are doing. For example, rather than approaching your partner and saying, “You always leave your dirty dishes in the sink and just expect me to clean them up. You’re such a slob,” instead, try saying “I feel so frustrated when I walk in the kitchen and find a pile of dirty dishes in the sink.” When you approach your partner with criticism and with hostility, you are making it less likely to get what you want. When your concerns start with a criticism, you will meet criticism’s best friend, defensiveness.

2. Validate

When we speak with others, we want to feel heard and understood. When we validate our partners experience, we are conveying to them that their feelings are important and matter to us. For example, when your partner tells you that you have done something that was hurtful to them, you may be tempted to defend yourself at first. However, this can lead to miscommunication and tends to escalate the conversation.

The beauty of validation is that you do not have to agree with what your partner is saying in order to validate. So while you may think that what you said to your partner was not hurtful, remember that everyone’s perception is different. Simply because your partner’s perception is different from yours, does not mean that it is wrong. Rather than saying, “You're blowing what I said out of proportion; I didn’t think it was that big of a deal,” try validating their experience by saying, “I can see how making a joke about your mother in front of our friends would be hurtful to you and that was not my intention.” 

Validation is also important when our partner is talking about a difficult situation that they have experienced. For example, if your partner comes home from work and tells you that they are feeling very stressed over a situation at work, you may want to respond by helping them to problem-solve or by giving advice. However, put all of that on hold and try validating first. It’s important to demonstrate to your partner that you understand how they are feeling before you do anything else. 

3. Take a time-out

Time-outs are not just important in sports, but in communication as well. When a team takes a time-out, they slow things down in order to feel better prepared before the game resumes. The same strategy should be used in relationships. When we are experiencing conflict with a partner and notice that we are having a physical response, such as our breathing becoming rapid, our muscles tightening, our heat racing, we are experiencing a flooding of emotions and our nervous system is in overdrive. When a partner says something that triggers us, our brain perceives a threat and prepares us for fight or flight. We may feel so overwhelmed that we result in saying hurtful things to our partner or find that we just want get away from the situation.

In order to prevent this, notice the early signs that you are starting to feel flooded by tuning into your internal experience. Are you starting to feel flushed, is your heart racing, muscles getting tighter? When this happens, initiate a time-out by saying to your partner that you are feeling overwhelmed and need to take a time-out. During this time, it is important to engage in an activity that is soothing, rather than simply sit there and ruminate about what your partner has said. Engage in something relaxing to you, like taking a walk or listening to music. The key is to take a time-out for at least 20 minutes. If you need to take more time, check-in with your body to make sure you are ready to reconvene. 

4. Timing is everything

Timing is everything. This could not be more true when it comes to communicating with our partners. When we are feeling upset and need to talk to our partner, it is tempting to approach the conversation as soon as we see them.  But as tempting as this may be, if the timing is not right, the conversation is not likely to go well, which will result in further frustration. If you are waiting for your partner to come home because you need to talk to them about hurting your feelings earlier, give them some time to unwind. In other words, don’t meet them at the door with, “I need to talk to you about something that has been really bothering me all day.” Allow them some time to come home and sit down for a few minutes, before starting the conversation. If you are not sure whether it is the right time to approach a partner, one quick way is to ask them. Try saying, “I have something important that I want to talk to you about, can you please let me know when you are ready to talk.”

Also, make sure that your partner is not engaging in something else when you approach them. If your partner is watching their favorite show, it’s probably not the best time to approach them with something that is upsetting to you. If you approach them when they are engaging in something, you will only get divided attention and they may respond in a certain way simply to speed up the conversation. Also, it is important to hold off on approaching your partner with something that is upsetting to you, if you have just had a bad day. When you experiencing a negative state of mind, it is going to be pretty difficult not to displace those feelings onto your partner. If you want the conservation to go well, deal with your feelings of upset before moving onto talking to your partner about an important issue. 

5. Your partner is not a mind reader

As well as our partners know us, they are not mind readers. When we do not express our needs to our partners because we think that "they should just know," not only do we not get our needs met, but we may be left feeling resentful. If you want to go on more romantic dates with you partner, do not wait for them to bring this up, let them know what you would like. If your partner hurt your feelings, do not wait for them to recognize that you are giving them the silent treatment. Tell them that they hurt your feelings. If you want to talk to your partner about something that upset you, preface the conversation by telling your partner what you need from them. Do you need advice? Do you simply need to vent? Do you need to engage in something fun with them to get your mind off your day? 

 Conflict occurs when we are feeling upset and our partner does not meet our needs. However, since we may be needing something different, depending on the particular situation, it is important to let them know what you need in that moment. If you are needing to vent and your partner starts problem-solving, it is important to keep in mind that they were well-intentioned. If they miss the mark, validate their efforts for helping and let them know what you need in that moment. 

There is no doubt about it, communicating in a healthy manner, when discussing difficult topics is no easy feat. When we are feeling angry, it can be tempting to get a dig in at our partner, but ask yourself, "Is this going to be helpful or hurtful to the conversation?" We are human and we are not always going to get it right every time. But when you do not, give yourself an opportunity to try it again!