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6 Safe Sentence-Starters For Sensitive Discussions

A strong start matters a lot when you try to talk about tough topics.

How you start saying your viewpoint impacts if people listen or ignore you.
The way you start when you talk affects if you will be ignored.

Distressing situations offer potential for major happiness.  Sound paradoxical?  It is, and it's true. Everyone loves a happy ending to what looked to be a bad situation.  The key is to be sure that when you try to fix the problem, you start off what you say in a cooperative and tactful way that ups the odds that you will be listened to.  Use these tactful sentence-starters for communicating with your spouse, your boss, your beau, your kids or even your Mom.

Launch with these skillful communication sentence-starters when a topic is touchy.  They relax everyone by conveying that you would like to proceed in a mutually safe and collaboarative way.

Use all six sentence-starters to guide a full discussion of a topic. Take them one at a time. Wait for a response from each and dialogue a bit about that before you move on to the next.

The order suggested below works especially well, including in situations where just two or so are necessary. For instance, in many business situations state the dilemma, e.g., "Our sales were down quite a bit last month." Then aim to use starters # 2, then #3, and then #4.

Each of the safe-starters can be used repeatedly in a conversation, as many times as you need. For instance, you might want to list several concerns using #2 to introduce each.

Just be sure you pause for dialogue about each before you move forward with the next. Dialogue generally proceeds best in short chunks, that is, one point at a time. Use use one starter and pause for the listener to digest and respond to that point before proceeding on to the next.


Starter #1: I feel/felt ________________________________.

For example, "I feel confused about what happened last night."

Note: feelings are one word or phrase. More than one word or phrase is probably a thought, not a feeling. If you have begun "I feel that...", you are sharing information but you are not sharing a feeling.

Note also that some feelings will be received more easily than others. Vulnerable feelings like confused, anxious, concerned, or sad have higher odds of engendering cooperation than threatening words like angry, mad, or even frustrated.

To add more information about the situation that triggered the feeling, add a when you. The when you can be added at either the beginning or the end of the sentence.

I feel/felt _______________ when you ____________________.


When you ___________________, I feel/felt ________________.

"I felt hurt when you left the house instead of being happy to see the new sofa."

"When you left the house instead of being happy to see the new sofa, I felt hurt."


Starter #2: My concern is/was ____________________________.

"My concern was that I wanted to prepare a nice surprise for you. I felt really bad that my surprise seems to have backfired."

Understanding each others' concerns sets you up to find good solutions, solutions that work for both of you.


Starter #3: I would like to _________________________________.

"I would like to understand what you were thinking when you looked distressed by the new sofa I bought instead of excited."

Note: Be sure to avoid I would like you to... Telling each other what to do is a losing strategy, likely to engender resentment rather than cooperation.


Sentence starter #4: How/What do you feel/think about that idea?

"What was your reaction to the sofa? I'd been so sure you'd love it, since we've talked so long about trying to find one in this color and fabric, and the price was quite modest."

Symmetry is vital in sensitive conversations. The fourth starter, a question, invites the listener to share his/her perspective.



The following response sequence enables conversations to flow smoothly. The sequence begins with listening to learn, not to dismiss or negate.


Starter #5: Yes. I agree that ______________________________.

"Yes, I agree that the sofa is exactly what we'd talked about, and I do think it's perfect for the room."

Starting with YES establishes that you are collaborative--on the same side, against the problem. Explaining what makes sense about what you heard tells your conversation partner what you are digesting from what was said.

Be specific. Avoid generalities like "I agree with what you said." Generalities tend to convey that you are being patronizing, that you did not really listen or digest what you claim to have heard.

Tell the speaker what you agree with, giving specifics. Digesting what you heard aloud in this way clarifies what you took in so the speaker feels that his/her contribution has been entered into the shared data pool.


Starter #6: And at the same time ___________________________.

"And at the same time I felt a surge of panic when I saw the sofa. The panic had to do with something that happened yesterday at work. My new boss, the guy I've disliked since he arrived, told me that my job may end. That's why reacted with panic instead of pleasure. I walked out of the house because I was so distressed I couldn't even talk about it."

Rather than linking with the negating word but, which dismisses or erases what came before, launch your differing perspective with and or and at the same time. Both viewpoints then will remain on the data table, keeping the dialogue collaborative and co-creating new understandings.

In sum, these six sentence starters are remarkably robust. One or more of them is likely to serve you well in almost any sensitive situation, with intimates, work associates, family members or friends.  


Susan Heitler, PhD, a Denver Clinical psychologist, is author of multiple publications including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two.  A graduate of Harvard and NYU, Dr. Heitler's most recent project is an interactive website for upgrading your relationship communication skills,  


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