Communication is one of the pillars of sustaining meaningful relationships. Unfortunately, communication often takes a turn for the worse when discussing topics that make us feel vulnerable and anxious. Dealing with difficult conversations can make us feel like we're walking a tightrope. But it doesn't have to be like this. In fact, navigating tough conversations can actually become a tool to help further develop relationships, instead of something that erodes them over time.
Learning how to navigate a conversation, even when emotions are running high and defense mechanisms kick in, allows us to access insight and understanding we might otherwise not be able to attain. We can learn to push the limits of our pain points, but gracefully exit these conversations with respect for each other.
In this article, we’ll discuss some of the ways we can maneuver tough conversations so long as we remember one key piece of advice: trust your gut. When we sense something is not quite right and decide to hit pause on the conversation, do it. When we believe a desirable outcome can’t be achieved, the best move sometimes is to step away. That being said, pause does not have to mean break.
First and foremost, one must accept converse thoughtfully and consciously. We might find ourselves locked in debates and heated arguments due to an inability to consider another’s point of view. Rather than a kamikaze mentality, try to approach conversation with a soft, recognizably routine version of yourself – the same version you take to your job or school. This will give you perspective and breathing room to think, as well as better prepare you to listen.
As the conversation unfolds and emotions begin to stir, it’s important to stay conscious of the space you’re occupying, even if that means needing to practice mindfulness and grounding exercises and using them actively during (and after) the conversation. If you find yourself beginning to answer impulsively or emotionally, allow yourself short sentences and use compassion when needed. There’s no need to explain further when you know your level of distress is rising and your guard is up. Knowing our limits helps us keep our cool and stay focused at all times.
It goes without saying that being mindful of nonverbal communication matters. How we carry ourselves says it all. If your body language emits tension, chances are so will the conversation. My Grandma used to say “smile, even when you’re anxious.” Even if you find yourself in a dicey situation, smiling dissipates negative energy - try it and see.
When in conversations laced with tension it’s commonplace regarding the other person as an enemy across the table instead of a human being on their journey, like you. We’re too quick to forget that we’re all human, with our own past and perspective, and that visibility into these nuances can be compromised by emotional volatility. Taking a minute, as soon as you’re aware, to reset and remain present – instead of allowing anxieties to kick in – is the easiest way to tame inner turmoil.
Often when dealing with emotional or frightening conversations it’s inevitable that walls come down and secrets are revealed. Acknowledging how difficult speaking up was for the other person – without diminishing the fact that you were hurt – is the first step to disarming this type of conversation. We can allow the other person to feel seen and heard while maintaining a boundary that lets the other person know that hurtful behaviors that caused harm will not be tolerated.
Finally, knowing when it’s time to stop talking and walk away is crucial if conversations begin escalating to dangerous levels. The goal of walking away is to momentarily step out of a situation that seems beyond repair, in order to gain clarity around where there might be room for repair. Leaving the conversation gives both parties time to cool down and reflect on what has been said and done, critically evaluate the situation, and bring the matter back to the table with new solutions.
It’s understandable to dread tough conversations. After all, confronting emotions isn’t easy and most of us have grown up believing we should never discuss uncomfortable topics with others. Navigating tough conversations can make us feel uncertain and unsafe, but there are ways to mitigate the anxious feelings associated with this part of relating with other people. Accepting the fear and nervousness is the first step to emerging from difficult conversations unscathed.