How to have hard conversations

Every relationship has their ups and downs. When you’re having a ‘down’ moment, one thing that can make everything feel even worse, is also believing your partner has misunderstood why you’re upset or how the argument occurred.

We can get caught in an ineffectual pattern of she-said/he-said/they-said, talking at or past each other. No one is really listening very effectively. No one is really speaking very effectively. We say things to make sure they hurt in the same way we do, and we interpret what they say with the worst possible interpretation.

Even if things aren’t quite that bad, it can be important to get back to the basics and have a structured conversation that can increase our opportunities to resolve an issue and understand our partner. This does not mean we have to like, accept, or endorse our partner’s interpretation of the conflict, but it will likely build understanding and empathy, while reducing contempt and distance.

upset young indian couple after conflict

If you have noticed that there seems to be a particular issue that is regularly raised by yourself or your partner than having a structured hard conversation may be particularly useful. One of the reasons having such a structured or formal conversation is that you both enter it with the intentionality of resolving something. Often, couples only seem to say what is on their mind in the middle of the argument when the issue is least likely to be resolved. During an argument the intention is often to hurt or persuade your partner, rather than understand and resolve. Further, setting a time for a structured conversation will likely mean you engage in it when things aren’t emotionally charged with anger, frustration, or revenge. You’re more likely to engage with a sense of determination, openness, and curiosity. This will be particularly important as you will likely need to say and hear things that are upsetting in some way.

I would typically practise this with my clients in session to both help recognise when either party is engaging in unhelpful practices such as defensiveness or personal criticism as well as provide suggestions to the enquirer if they are stuck on what to say. You can download the hard conversation exercise here.

woman wearing teal dress sitting on chair talking to man

The Hard Conversation

To start, one person must choose to be the speaker and one person must choose to be the enquirer.

The speaker’s role is to give an open and honest account of the problem from their point of view. It is their job to explain the problem is a way that gives their partner the best opportunity to understand it from their perspective. This is best achieved without the use of sarcasm, a raised voice, or by telling the other person what they thought or felt (e.g., “I know you don’t care about how I feel but…”).

The enquirer’s role is to listen, explore, and understand the problem from the speaker’s perspective. The enquirer may only do three things: validate the other person’s experience (e.g., “Wow, that sounds like you were really hurt by that”), clarify something the speaker said (e.g., “Can I just double check, did you think I was referring to you when I said X?”), and ask questions to deeper their understanding of the topic (e.g., “What was going on in your mind when you heard me say X on the phone”). Typically, the enquirer will only be speaking approximately 10% of the time compared to the speaker. It is not the enquirer’s role to try and fix the problem, to explain how speaker is wrong, or to argue for their own point of view.

Example topics for speakers

  1. When I come home from work, I sometimes feel overwhelmed when you ask me to speak about my day immediately. I really appreciate that you take such an interest and I have no problem with talking to you, I just need a good hour to decompress.
  2. Sometimes I want to have sex with you, but I just get this sense that you don’t want to. I know that I then get kind of awkward, sullen, and sometimes a bit snappy at you. I’m typically feeling hurt or rejected and I want to feel desired and loved.

Example questions for enquirers

  1. Tell me more about why this is so important to you?
  2. What are the background factors which relate to this?
  3. What can I specifically do to help here?
  4. Is there a deeper issue that this relates to as well?
  5. Are there other times when you feel like this too?

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