How to Have Difficult Conversations

Step-by-step guide to telling others what you need.

Posted Jul 20, 2020

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How many times have you been told, “there is no point in talking to them about it because they won’t change?”

You may have chosen to distance yourself from friendships when you felt disappointed or hurt. Alternatively, when you feel hurt, upset, or angry at a friend, you might have pushed feelings down and ignored them, hoping they would go away.

When you have a disagreement with a friend you don’t have to either disconnect or repress your feelings. You can express your feelings to them which often leads to even more connection. 

I know how hard it can be to tell a friend when something is bothering you. Recently, one of my friends said something that rubbed me the wrong way. I noticed after we spent time together that I felt tight in my chest; my heart was racing and I was sweating. My emotions were running high because I was hurt by the interaction.

While I was walking away from her, I had a moment of clarity where I thought, “You have two choices. You can do what you have been taught and keep walking finding a way to push the feelings away and move on, or you can turn right around and tell her how you feel.”

I took a deep breath, turned around, and walked back towards her house. I decided to be brave in the moment. I shared that our interaction had left me feeling awful and that I needed to let her know. We spoke for a few minutes about the interaction and what had occurred. She was kind and thoughtful and we cleared the air. I felt proud and walked the rest of the day with a bit of a spring in my step. Saying how I felt to a friend was a wonderful way to honor myself.

For many of my clients, the hardest part of telling someone how their behavior impacts them is not knowing how to share without sounding cruel. For example, my client Rachel’s mother was a loving person who always wanted the best for her daughter, but she also worried a lot about her. When Rachel told her mother about a snag that came up with her divorce agreement, her mother panicked. Rachel’s mom started asking her rapid-fire questions about her lawyer, her preparation for the meeting, and the repercussions of the snag. While Rachel’s mother was trying to help, all Rachel felt was that she was being blamed. She told me she quickly got off the phone with her mother and hadn't spoken to her since. Her mother tried to reach out a number of times over the past week, but Rachel was avoiding her calls. 

I hear a variation of this in my office weekly. Rachel was hurt by her mother’s behavior, but was not sure how to communicate this without hurting her mother’s feelings. I explained to Rachel, as I do to all clients, that telling someone we are angry with them and need them to behave differently is hard. It is especially hard since we aren’t often taught how to do this.

 I taught Rachel what I teach all my clients: the “sandwich technique” for having difficult conversations with others. Here is how it works. First, you start with an appreciation of the person (slice of bread). It is important that the appreciation is genuine. Do not make something up just to make the other person happy. Find something specific you appreciate them for. For example, Rachel might say, “I appreciate how much you check in with me Mom, and how involved you are in the details of what is going on.”  

Next, you say clearly what you need (the meat and veggies). In Rachel’s situation, she said, “I feel overwhelmed when you ask me a lot of questions about a situation I have not yet figured out myself. I would prefer you ask me what I need when I call you rather than assuming.” 

Lastly, you add another appreciation (2nd slice of bread). In Rachel’s case, she said, “I know and trust that you have my best interest at heart and want to help. I so appreciate you for that.” With this sandwich approach, Rachel was able to tell her mom what was bothering her while staying connected within their relationship.

Rachel’s mom told her she was grateful that Rachel told her how she felt and would always prefer to know how to help rather than be ignored for a week. Rachel told me a few weeks later that her mother had been asking her what she needed more often and her overall frustration with her mother had decreased.

Like all new behaviors, telling our friends how we feel is a skill that will take time to perfect, but it is so worth it.

You can get more tips like this on my website.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.