Difficult Conversations: Tips for discussing serious topics over the holidays

December 14, 2016

When approaching a difficult topic with parents and other family members, there are no universally successful strategies, because all relationships are unique and context-specific. Our entire history with the other person, including our memories, emotions, attitudes, and our family dynamics, come into play.

For example, if you are viewed by your parents as a highly responsible person, and they tend to be understanding and forgiving, and you have had open lines of communication in the past, it may be relatively easy to approach them about something you perceive as a mistake or a failure.

Have the right combination of family members present for your difficult conversation, says Counseling Center Director Scott Becker.

Have the right combination of family members present for your difficult conversation, says Counseling Center Director Scott Becker.

In contrast, if your parents tend to see you in a more negative or less trusting light, and if your attempts to communicate with them in the past have been difficult or tend to turn into heated arguments, then disclosing a misstep or a setback may be charged with anxiety and the potential for intense conflict. The most extreme example would be a family in which there has been a history of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. I would encourage any student with this history to consider avoiding a difficult conversation unless there is a mediator (e.g., a grandparent, aunt or uncle, family friend, therapist, or religious advisor) to ensure safety and respectful communication.

Each person should take all of the relevant factors into consideration and understand that it may not be possible to have a calm, conflict-free conversation, particularly if the theme of the dialogue is typically a difficult one.

With all of this in mind, here are some suggestions that may help to begin the conversation in a relatively constructive manner—or to de-escalate an argument.

Set the stage properly. Have the right combination of family members present. Does one parent tend to be more calm and understanding? Then it might be best to approach this parent first. Are there particular times that your family tends to be fully present and open to difficult topics? Are there particular places that might lend themselves to everyone being more present, calm, focused, and receptive? If so, plan accordingly, including asking you parent(s) when the best time and location would be from their perspective. You can mention that you have something important to talk about and that you want it to go well.

Begin with acknowledging that the topic may be upsetting to your parent(s). Apologizing for a mistake or for possibly causing them anxiety or anger can sometimes go a long way in helping parents feel that you have considered their feelings and their perspective. This kind of perspective-taking and empathy can be seen as a sign of maturity on your part, and it can help your parent(s) to be reminded that you are an adult who respects them as people. It also gives you a right to ask for the same consideration in return from them.

Comment not only on the content of the conversation, but also the process. That is, if things are not going well, it might be useful to mention it and to ask what your parent(s) think would help it go better. If you're feeling anxious or guilty, say so. In contrast, if it is going well, thank them for being understanding and for approaching the situation in such a productive way. If you are feeling that they are not understanding your point, it may be useful to point that out. Conversely, it may be helpful to listen to their perspective first and to acknowledge what they are saying, sometimes by paraphrasing what they are saying before trying to make your voice heard. Listen first, then reflect what they are saying, then correct any misperceptions, THEN attempt to ask them to listen. Asking them to take turns, along the lines of, “First, I'd like to explain what I want to talk about, then I want to hear where you're coming from and make sure I understand, and then I would like to explain to you what my thoughts and feelings are on the subject.”

If the situation turns into an argument or into what you would consider to be unfair or disrespectful, attempt to name this and to ask to revisit the conversation later, after everyone has had a chance to calm down. If you are feeling overtly verbally abused or physically unsafe, I would strongly encourage you to disengage and move to a place of security and support. No one deserves to be hurt, so attend to your own needs and your right to respect, dignity, and safety.

Establish the right for everyone to see the situation differently and to agree to disagree. Sometimes insisting that others agree with our point of view can lead them to entrench themselves in their position or to escalate the situation. If they feel respected, they are more likely to respect you. Particularly in times when political and personal opinions are more polarized and combative, it can useful to suggest that you're trying to find common ground or to honor your relationship, including its ability to hold legitimate differences without fracturing or ending. Love and compassion can make room for honest disagreements.

Suggest what you would like the outcome to be. For example, "I know this might be tough to hear, but I'm hoping that we can come up with a solution together," or "I'm hoping that we can put all of this on the table without it getting in the way of our relationship." Stating up front that you are not trying to win, or to hurt their feelings, or to demand something they're not prepared or able to give, can help them see that you are approaching the situation with the goal of mutual understanding. Even difficult conversations don't have to be a zero-sum game (in which one person wins and the other person has to lose).

Finally, try to keep a sense of humor! Without making light of a painful issue, it can be helpful to see the irony hidden within the situation, or to find the comedy that sometimes comes after tragedy. Conflict, handled with empathy, respect, humor, and patience, actually can lead to a deeper appreciation of who each person is, a stronger sense of trust and commitment that the relationship can weather difficult transitions.

Dr. Scott Becker is the director of the MSU Counseling Center.

Try to keep a sense of humor when broaching difficult topics, Becker advises.

Try to keep a sense of humor when broaching difficult topics, Becker advises.

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