Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 28 September 2020

How to talk to friends and family about sensitive subjects: the art of having difficult conversations

Some conversations need to be had, but that doesn't make them easy, especially between loved ones

Letting go of your need to be right is the first step when having a difficult conversation with loved ones. Unsplash
Letting go of your need to be right is the first step when having a difficult conversation with loved ones. Unsplash

We all have our differences. That's part of what makes the world such an interesting place.

Sometimes those differences can allow a relationship to flourish, complementing our own traits and helping to balance our flaws. And sometimes, they can be fundamental differences, clashing with the core values that make up our entire belief systems.

Chances are, the majority of people you choose to surround yourself with won’t fall into the latter camp. But things aren’t always that simple.

There will come a time in most of our lives when we will be forced to have difficult conversations with people we love. They can be uncomfortable and intimidating, and often leave us wanting to avoid the topic altogether. But more often than not, they are the kinds of conversations that need to be had in order for us to grow and evolve.

The year 2020 has, so far, brought with it many struggles. A pandemic has shone a global light on health and the economy; the death of George Floyd has sparked Black Lives Matter protests in the US and across the world, and forced many people to look inwards at privilege and societal structure; and with Brexit and the US elections on the horizon, politics continues to polarise.

Add to that families, friends and couples stuck in self-isolation at home together, and it is likely that people are having more difficult conversations than ever before. But, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Often, the reason difficult conversations are so hard is because we know they are the ones that need to be had. They might require you to accept an unflattering trait in someone you love, or admit some harsh truths about your own beliefs.

Human behaviour expert Patrick Wanis
Human behaviour expert Patrick Wanis

“If you recognise that something could be a delicate topic of conversation, that means you already have some understanding and appreciation that there is likely to be conflicting opinions,” says human behaviour expert Patrick Wanis. “So before you even start to think about how to bring up the conversation, pause and think what the other person's pre-existing concept around this topic is, if you already know it. And if you know that it's different to yours, then you understand that it's delicate.”

Let go of your own ego

The first thing to do before approaching such a conversation is to let go of your need to be right. Until you do that, it is unlikely that you will be able to have the discussion in an open and productive way. “Once you let go of your need to be right, what is left is your desire to succinctly share your perspective because that is what is true for you,” says Laura Brennan, counselling psychologist at UAE support group Darkness into Light.

This allows people to share what they believe to be true for them, rather than feeling the need to force or push opinions upon each other, Brennan says.

Laura Brennan, of UAE voluntary support group Darkness Into Light. 
Laura Brennan of UAE voluntary support group Darkness into Light

“The biggest enemy to you in a difficult conversation is yourself and your own ego, because within your own ego, you will have a view of what you believe to be right or wrong and what you think is good and bad, and that is based on your perception of the world, your values and how you have been brought up,” explains Brennan.

Before you've even had your conversation, pause and think about who you are speaking with. What was their programming? How were they raised? What did their culture teach them?

Patrick Wanis, human behaviour expert

But the person you are speaking to is not you. They are a completely separate individual, no matter how close your relationship may be. They will have their own ego, their own idea of what is right and wrong. And they will want to express themselves based on their own life situation and background, in much the same way you do.

Wanis says: “Before you've even had your conversation, pause and think about who you are speaking with. What was their programming? How were they raised? What did their culture teach them? What did their generation teach them? These are the key differences between people that shape the way we view the world, and often, are so deeply ingrained in our psyche, it makes it difficult to see things in any other way.

First, get your intentions straight

The most important thing you can do is set yourself an objection for the conversation. In much the same way as you would have a plan for a meeting or discussion in the workplace, intentions should be set out at the start, and stuck to.

“If your intention is to prove to everyone else that they are wrong and you're right, you're going to have a major conflict on your hands,” says Wanis.

If you approach the conversation with the view of seeking to understand the person and their views, rather than force your own upon them, you will have a far better chance of eventually finding some common ground.

Try and have a difficult conversation in a neutral open place, where both people feel comfortable. Unsplash
Try and have a difficult conversation in a neutral open place, where both people feel comfortable. Unsplash

“Ask questions, and make sure you actively listen,” Wanis adds. “That means giving your full attention to that person when they're speaking and not interrupting them; you need to allow them to speak completely.”

Brennan reiterates the importance of actively listening, as well as remaining present during the conversation. “If you approach the conversation with presence, it means you are coming out of automatic mode and aligning to your intentions, remembering what you want to get out of the conversation,” she says.

“And then with attention, you should remain open and non-judgmental, trying to relate to the person in the conversation. This will allow you to come with an approach to listen without the need to react.”

Ask questions

Once you have allowed a person to make their point, entirely, without interrupting, if you still do not understand or are unclear on something they have said, you should attempt to gain clarity. “Repeat back some of their phrases and ask questions. Not cynical questions, not rhetorical questions, but real questions that seek to understand and clarify what the other person is saying,” Wanis says.

If kindness is a value of yours, then you need to be able to be kind even to people who are challenging you. Otherwise you are being selective, and that is not kindness

Laura Brennan,

counselling psychologist

But, even if you enter a difficult conversation with the best intentions in the world, there’s a chance things might not play out in a calm manner, especially if the topic is something you strongly believe in. It’s important to remember how much you value and care for the other person, and that the purpose is to try and find a place of mutual understanding.

How to keep your cool

However, if things start to get heated, there are steps you can take. “If a conversation has escalated, this is where you have to have accountability for your own role in that happening,” says Brennan.

She suggests taking a break, saying something like: ‘I am finding this conversation to be difficult for me, and I can’t be kind to you right now, so I am going to remove myself from the conversation and when I feel I can be kind, I’ll come back to you.'

“You can see how challenging it would be for your ego to say that, because in your mind, you could be completely right, and you could have done everything right to have a nice conversation,” she says.

“But you are not in control of how the other person expresses themselves, you are only in control of how you express yourself. And if kindness is a value of yours, then you need to be able to be kind even to people who are challenging you. Otherwise you are being selective, and that is not kindness.”

It is important to remember your intentions for the conversation, and keep them in mind throughout. Unsplash
It is important to remember your intentions for the conversation, and keep them in mind throughout. Unsplash

Recognising you’re becoming angry takes great self-awareness, but it is important to take yourself out of the situation when that happens. “You could try taking a time-out and going for a walk, taking some deep breaths to calm your nervous system,” says Wanis.

“What happens when you get angry is you enter hyperarousal, fight or flight mode, and at that point, you're thinking only about being right and you are most likely taking things personally. You are not able to separate yourself from the emotion. It’s important to calm yourself before resuming.”

Ultimately, try and find a common ground: values over perspective

But what happens when a middle ground between friends and family cannot be reached? It is unlikely that in one conversation you will be able to bring someone around to your way of thinking, and as both Brennan and Wanis have highlighted, your intention should be to simply open the dialogue on the topic, rather than seek to control it.

“Universal human values are different to perspectives. You could have a married couple who share the mutual human universal values of kindness, compassion, open mindedness, but they follow different football teams. That is their individual perspective of which team is the best,” explains Brennan.

“They know what is more important are their values. But what has happened to society is that some people give more importance to perspective than to universal human values, and it’s this distortion that has created so much conflict at home and in society at a wider level.”

Wanis agrees. “You might all have different motivations, but core values are where you are likely to find common ground,” he says. “Unfortunately, today we tend to think more about how another person is different to us rather than the similarities. But if you ask enough questions and really listen, you'll often find that the other person actually does have a lot in common with you.”

Updated: June 11, 2020 12:32 PM

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