It happens all the time. Someone you care about has upset you or is making a big mistake in their life (or both). You want them to know you are upset or change what they are doing. But you don’t want an argument or to lose your relationship. The risk feels big, and you are uncertain about how to approach the whole thing. So, what should you do?
I see this struggle all the time — in the Relationships and Caring community, in my clinical practice, and with people in my personal life. And it comes up in all kinds of relationships — with friends, siblings, and spouses. Unfortunately, there is no sure-fire answer that can get the results you want without the risk of conflict or loss. But there are ways of thinking about your situation and approaching it that can help.
Know your own experience: If you think about your situation as a problem to be solved, then it becomes evident that you can benefit from understanding the problem well. This means understanding what you are feeling, thinking, and hoping for (both in the sense of what you want more of and what you’d like less of).
Begin with a positive: All discussions about problems can benefit from starting with the positive. So, begin by stating what you value about your relationship and how you would like to make it even better.
Share your experience: By only briefly describing their behavior or the circumstance, but truly focusing on your experience, you invite the other person into your intimate space. Making yourself vulnerable in this way tends to elicit a caring response from people who truly do care about you. If, on the other hand, you talk about all the things the other person is doing wrong, they will most likely defend themselves by either shutting you out or attacking you.
When you do this, you might want to check with the other person to assess whether they understand what you are saying. Leave the discussion of whether they agree with you for another time. Just knowing that they “get it” can help you feel like they care enough to listen carefully and will ensure that you are both talking about the same thing.
Listen to their experience: Ask how the situation and what you are saying affects them. Make sure you take the time and invest the effort to understand their perspective.
Be aware that particularly if they are very upset, you might need to listen to their response to the current situation before they can really hear what you have to say about your experience.
Ask for what you want: Restate what you value about your relationship and how you would like to make it even better. Be clear about how you would like the situation or their behavior to be different. And, explain how you will both benefit from this change.
This approach to difficult conversations won’t make them easy, but it can help guide you through to a positive outcome. It’s also important to be aware one conversation does not make for a healthy relationship. Positive, open communication needs to be ongoing. And, difficult topics usually need to be addressed over the course of many conversations. But if you are willing to do the work of bringing up these topics and seeing them through, you (and hopefully your relationship) will be better for it.
If you would like to join a general discussion about this topic, visit the Relationships and Coping Community.