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6 Ways People Shut Down Difficult Conversations

Listening to feedback can be difficult. Here's how people might respond.

Key points

  • People often struggle to accept feedback, and they may use a variety of tactics to avoid speaking vulnerably.
  • These strategies include exaggeration, forced gratitude, and defensiveness.
  • Constructively responding to each claim can lead to productive, honest conversations.

Accepting feedback is one of the most difficult communication skills to master. It requires hearing how you hurt somebody else and learning the ways you will need to grow. But sometimes, the person receiving feedback finds ways to cut off or short-circuit the conversation in unhealthy ways. Let’s look at a few of the most common forms of conversation enders.

1. The exaggeration: “I get it. I’m a terrible person.”

When told that a particular behavior is problematic, a person may respond by acknowledging an exaggerated form of the complaint – turning it into a global criticism about themselves. When they hear “I need help cleaning the kitchen,” they may respond with “I get it. I’m a total slob.”

This sort of response can shut down a conversation or put the complainant in the position to have to reassure the person that they have no global flaw, only behaviors that require addressing. But by exaggerating the feedback, they may successfully divert the conversation away from the original issue.

How to respond: You might say something like, “It’s really hard to have a conversation when you say those kinds of statements about yourself. I really need us to be able to talk about difficult things.” Or “you’re a great partner and I’ve felt hurt by this particular pattern of behavior. I’d like to talk more about this.”

2. The cut-off: “OK, OK, enough. I’m sorry.”

When struggling to hear feedback, a person may cut off a conversation or rush through it. They may hear enough to know that they did something wrong but do not sit with the information long enough to internalize it and reflect back an understanding that they know they caused pain.

The apologies from somebody who cuts off the conversation may feel hollow because they function to end a conversation rather than a signal that they understand their impact, take responsibility, and want to move forward in a new way. This sort of cut-off can often be followed up with a frustrated “I said I’m sorry! Move on already!”

How to respond: “When you say, ‘Ok ok, enough,’ it feels like you don’t really understand but that you’re not willing to sit with what I’m saying. Can we slow this down for a minute?”

3. The “Move on already!”

Similar to the person who cuts off the conversation, the “move on already” defense occurs when a person struggles to take responsibility for their behavior and so puts the responsibility on the person giving the feedback to “get over it.” They may call the individual “sensitive” or “dramatic” and accuse them of holding onto their pain for too long.

A person receiving this response may question their own reasonableness and wonder whether their complaint is valid or if they are being over the top in some way. This can also be a form of gaslighting, in which a person finds their version of reality fundamentally questioned.

How to respond: “I hear that you want us to get past this, and that makes sense. I am still feeling hurt by this and need to talk about it some more until we can resolve it. I’m not ready to move on, and I need you to be here with me.”

4. The “Well you...”

Ah, basic defensiveness. Instead of taking a piece of feedback to heart or even engaging it on a basic level, this individual lodges a counter-complaint. They may feel backed into a corner and compelled to lash out or distract from the original issue. This tactic obfuscates the conversation and can lead to a tit-for-tat discussion of which person’s offense is worse. It may even shift the focus entirely to the counterpoint while leaving the original issue undiscussed. Sometimes the other party raises legitimate concerns, but they rarely get addressed well when they’re brought up as a counter-point.

How to Respond: “That may absolutely be true and that I’ve hurt you, I want to know more about that. But right now, I need us to focus on this particular thing. I’m happy to turn to other issues later.”

 Liza Summer
Source: Pexels: Liza Summer

5. The one-down position: “I can’t believe you put up with this. Why do you even spend time with me?”

This tactic, similar to the tactic of exaggerating (see #1), turns the conversation away from the original complaint and may force the person providing feedback to become a caretaker. It makes it very difficult to continue addressing the issue at hand.

The power comes from the person being so self-disparaging that there really is no room to agree with them, and much like the exaggeration, it puts the complainant in the position to have to dispute the other person’s exaggerated claims and thus downplay their own issue.

How to Respond: “I really need to talk with you about this hurtful thing that was done. It’s really hard to do that when you start beating yourself up, because it feels like now it’s my job to take care of you. Can you tolerate sitting with this uncomfortable conversation?”

6. The gratitude defense: “I’ve done so much for you”

With the gratitude defense, the person receiving the feedback alleges that because they have been supportive in the past or in other ways, they should not be held accountable for their actions in this instance. The message is that no complaints will stick because instead of feeling hurt, betrayed, or dismissed, the complainant should only feel gratitude.

The gratitude defense is common in intergenerational conversations, with parents alleging that because they raised their children, the children are not entitled to explore particular aspects of the relationship.

How to Respond: “These things can both be true. I am grateful for everything you’ve done for me. And I need us to talk about this, because this has been really hard for me.”

While all of these tactics are different, they share the feature of interfering with a dyad’s ability to move through an issue in a meaningful way. They all divert or shut down the conversation. And truly, most of us have been guilty of one or another of these at some point in a relationship. Why do we turn to them? We turn to them because we feel scared, insecure, angry, or hurt, so our armor goes up. But they never work in the long term. They only stave off the difficult conversation for a little while.

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