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Honest Conversations in Relationships

How to say what we mean and mean what we say.

Women talking over coffee
Source: StockSnap/Pixabay


  • For honest conversations, we need to share our hopes, fears, insecurities, dreams, strengths, and weaknesses.
  • It will take courage to share what we are thinking and feeling.
  • It will take courage to muster positive regard for others.
  • Name and accept your emotions, preferences, and needs. And dedicate the time to talk.

Last week the universe told me to do some thinking about honest conversations. On Monday, I gave a talk titled Being Comfortable with Discomfort: Why and How to Pursue Difficult Conversations in the Classroom as part of Xavier University’s series Conversations Across the American Divide. On Wednesday, I did a radio spot with Lisa Valentine Clark on BYU Radio’s The Lisa Show about why it is so darn hard to have honest conversations. And then on Saturday, things got personal: I had to level with a friend, sharing that I wasn’t yet able to have the honest conversation we needed to have because my heart needs more mending before I can do that conversation well.

And here I am: Sunday night, margarita in hand, continuing my reflection on the “why” and “how” of honest conversations. Whether in intimate relationships or professional collaborations, being able to say what we mean and mean what we say enables us to have our needs met and to meet the needs of others.

Honest conversations start with believing that both you and the other person are naturally creative, resourceful, and whole. From that vantage point, we're all capable, and compelled I think, to see and be seen; this includes our hopes, fears, insecurities, dreams, strengths, and weaknesses. We then muster the courage to share what we’re really thinking and feeling, as well as muster the positive regard for our fellow humans to do so with grace and tact.

My research, teaching, and practice are all in relational domains: close relationships, community building, and collaboration. These are spaces where, to create closeness and connection, we need to be honest with ourselves and others about our intentions, needs, wants, and desires. By sharing what’s really going on inside, we not only invite others to respond in kind by sharing their needs and wants, we also give them the opportunity to be responsive to our needs or to honor their own boundaries by saying no.

But, of course, honest conversations are difficult. They often concern aspects of our core selves—our identities, beliefs, and values. They require that we allow ourselves to be seen in all our imperfect messiness. We worry about hurting others’ feelings or being rejected ourselves. We worry we will push others away, risking the very connection we cherish.

Realizing that some individuals are better at having honest conversations than others and that some relationships provide stronger containers than others in which these conversations can take place, I share here five ideas for developing our honest-conversation muscles. The more we practice these foundational skills, the more readily we will be able to lean into honest conversations when they matter most.

  1. Practice naming for yourself your emotions, preferences, and needs. If we are unable to name these things for ourselves, we can’t possibly share them with others when called upon to do so. What’s coming up for me right now? What would help me feel valued in this situation? What do I really want here? If it were entirely up to me, which path would I choose?
  2. Practice accepting your emotions, preferences, and needs. If we worry that our thoughts and feelings are “too much” or “unacceptable,” we won’t be able to share them with others and we also risk holding these same judgments of others when they share their inner worlds with us. What is it like to observe what comes up for you, without judgment? What would your most caring, compassionate friend say about what you’re thinking and feeling?
  3. Practice honest conversations in low-stakes relationships. Next time you’re in a fleeting, inconsequential interaction, try answering a question with total and complete honesty. If a stranger in line at the post office asks how you’re doing, see if you can override the habitual mode of responding (“I’m great! How are you?”) and share something more real (“Honestly, I’m having a hard time today, I just learned that a close friend is really sick.”). Your response might open up a moment of authentic connection, or the other person might get weirded out and promptly need to check their email. Their reaction is actually irrelevant here; that you’re practicing honesty is what’s important.
  4. Practice honest conversations around low-stakes topics. What time do you want to meet? What toppings should we get on the pizza? What movie should we stream tonight? Low-stakes topics like these are a great practice ground for sharing your preferences with others Let’s huddle at 2:00. I want mushrooms and sausage. A whole movie is more of a time commitment than I can do tonight, so how about an episode of that baking show? If someone flips out about your honesty around these trivial issues, that may be a red flag signaling a deeper relational issue.
  5. Dedicate time to have a structured honest conversation with someone you care about. Relationship researcher Arthur Aron (my Ph.D. advisor) and colleagues created a protocol for experimentally generating closeness in the research lab. It involves taking turns answering a set of 36 increasingly revealing questions. Set aside an hour with a friend, romantic partner, or colleague to go through the questions. Or, try out the wonderful questions provided by Free Intelligent Conversation. The point is to practice sharing increasingly more about yourself with people who care about you and to listen to others who dare to do the same.

Learning how to engage honestly, courageously, and tactfully when difficult conversions kick up benefits all of our relationships, including those with our kids, life partners, colleagues, and collaborators. Frankly, doing so is a gift we give to ourselves and others. Honest conversations are difficult, not to mention essential.

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