How to Have Difficult Conversations

How to Have Difficult Conversations
Gema Sánchez Cuevas

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Gema Sánchez Cuevas.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Although you’d rather not, every once in a while you do have to have difficult conversations. Many people choose to avoid them as if the problem would just disappear on its own. But it doesn’t work that way. In fact, postponing the inevitable often complicates things even more.

You shouldn’t be afraid of difficult conversations. There are strategies you can use to deal with these types of situations. If you play your cards right, you can learn to master them and avoid drama. That way, you get what you would hope from the conversation: effective communication. Let’s look at how to do it.

“Everything is possible when the door of communication is open. We must invest ourselves in the practice of opening up and restoring communication.”

-Thich Nhat Hanh-

Strategies for difficult conversations

The first thing you should do is set aside the preconceived idea of what a difficult conversation is. At the end of the day, that’s what we call conversations that we think will give us problems. So you anticipate problems, which generates tension from the get-go. You go on the defensive.

Herein lies the first key to mastering difficult conversations: don’t anticipate complications. That will help you focus on the conversation and get some perspective. It will also allow you to pay attention to cues from your partner and manage their emotional changes and reactions.

Difficult conversations.

Active listening without putting your feelings first

People need to be feel listened to. That’s why you shouldn’t just be attentive and willing to listen. Your whole body should show that you are listening. Listening, as we all know, is indispensable for good communication.

If the other person senses tension, anxiety, defensiveness, or aggression, they will react negatively. They won’t be willing to listen. If, on the other hand, you are encouraging, calm, and compassionate, it will be easier for them to feel the same.

A conversation, as difficult as it may be, isn’t a fight. There aren’t winners or losers. Therefore, if you want to make something clear, you have to stay calm. This is especially important if the other person seems emotional.

Don’t put your feelings first, even if you feel hurt

It is also important not to put your feelings first, even if the other person hurt you. Your partner needs to feel validated; they need to know that their feelings matter too. They need to know that you believe in them, in spite of their actions and how much they may have hurt you

First, make the purpose of the conversation clear. Then, focus on your partner’s thoughts and feelings. That is essential. Accept them without judgment before you continue; do not hold anyone’s feelings against them. The time for you to express your ideas and emotions will come later.

Learn to interpret and manage emotional changes

Many people shut themselves off in difficult conversations. That makes them feel even more nervous, and it is unlikely that the conversation will end well. However, if you are observant and attentive, you will notice these changes and be able to keep the conversation calm and under control.

For example, if you notice that your partner’s tone of voice changes, tell them. You can also choose not to tell them, but at least have in mind what the tone of voice means. People often change the way they talk right before they say what’s important to them because they’re afraid of what might happen.

Yelling letters.

Another signal you should watch out for is nervous laughter. Some people laugh when they feel embarrassed or uncomfortable. They aren’t making fun of you — quite the opposite in fact. It’s similar to when we cry from happiness.

Nervous laughter tends to indicate distress. If your partner laughs nervously, ask them how they feel. That allows you to identify a starting point from which you can move forward in a positive way. It might also indicate that they’re trying to avoid a particular emotion. That’s why it’s important to ask them to express what’s bothering them and help them open up.

Changes in the pattern of visual contact can also indicate emotional variations. You can tell that the other person needs a break just by their eyes. If they look the other way or coldly hold your gaze in a threatening way, that might mean that something important came up during the conversation.

That’s the time to ask them, without any hint of aggression, to share their point of view. Then you should listen to it without interruption or judgment.

You might notice them using the word “but” a lot. That is a sign that they’re about to talk about what they’re afraid of but can’t say it because they’re scared or ashamed. Take advantage of those “buts” to help them finish.

Having difficult conversations is good for both of you

As we said before, a conversation isn’t a fight. There aren’t winners or losers. If you want to understand something, draw conclusions, or come up with solutions, you have to find a way to have that difficult conversation.


It isn’t about being right or proving something. In fact, in this type of conversation, that’s the worst possible focus. You won’t gain anything, and you have a lot to lose. Open your mind. Put your anger and resentment aside.

If you find all of this difficult (it often is, let’s not pretend otherwise) think of what you hope to get out of the conversation. Tell that to your partner. It’s important that both of you know where the conversation is going.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.