We’re not talking here about doing casual conversations — catching up with friends over lunch, chit-chat at a cocktail party. We’re talking about navigating those more difficult conversations where you need to voice a complaint, solve a problem. These can quickly go off the rails because of defensiveness and blame, or one side shutting down, or the opposite, jumping in a giving advice and still not listening.
But good, productive conversations aren’t a matter of content or personality but skills that you can master. Here’s a guide to having the best conversations ever:
Being on The Receiving End
Here we’re talking about the other person coming to you with a complaint or problem: Tom is frustrated by the kid’s toys constantly on the floor; Sara is worried about the family budget; Anne needs to just vent about her job.
What to do:
Listening means putting away the cell phone, putting down the tablet, adopting a relaxed pose, and listening. The key here is listening longer than you may be comfortable doing. You may get triggered to defend yourself – I do get the kids to pick up the toys — or to give advice – I already suggested that it would help our finances if you picked up extra hours at work, or Why don’t you go talk to your supervisor about your frustrations?
Don’t. Wait. Let the person get out their story, their concern.
And if you are feeling blamed or attacked, do your best to remain calm. The voiceover in your head is: This is not about me, this is about them and their problem. They are having a hard time. Deep breath.
How can I help/what can I do?
Again, the attitude is helping the other person with their problem, not defending your stance, not making a case for why it’s not a problem, etc. Anne may say that there’s nothing you can do except listen when she needs to vent. Sara may say that we need to sit down and come up with a budget that works. Tom may say that we may have to organize the kid’s toys better with containers to put stuff in.
And if you have an idea now is the time to speak up: You wonder aloud whether Anne should talk to someone in HR; you say to Sara that having a budget is a good idea, but based on past experience you both need to have a way of tracking expenses; you suggest to Tom that you both need to do a better job of building into the kids’ routines time to clean up their mess.
It is important to make suggestions on both sides as concrete as possible so each of you knows exactly what to do. We need to be more careful with money is too vague, as is, we need to get the kids to be more responsible.
This is the summary paragraph you learned to end your high school essays with: Stating clearly the outcome of the discussion and next steps.
And if it gets too emotional…
If either side gets too hot, call a break. Don’t say, I’m not talking about this anymore if you’re going to get so upset or until you calm down, instead say, I’m getting upset, I need to cool off. Give me an hour and then let’s try this again.
And come back in an hour and try again. If both of you are still upset, go back to your corners. Only talk about it when you are both emotionally flat-lined.
Initiating the Conversation
Here is where you need to vent, complain, solve a problem. What to do:
Give the person a head’s up.
11:00 on Tuesday night when you both are tired is not the best time to start a productive conversation, and often springing something on someone forces them to either think on their feet or fall into defensiveness. Instead, give the other a head’s up:
I’m wondering if we could sit down this weekend and talk about our budget.
I’m feeling bothered by the kid’s toys always seeming scattered around the living room. I’d like to see if we can come up with a plan to get it cleaned up more easily.
Or even if it is about the venting, ask:
I need to just vent about my day. Can I catch your ear for a few minutes?
For deeper, heavier conversations, often it’s a good idea not only to set a time but actually pull together your thoughts and lay them out in advance. The best way to do this is by email, not text. Here you may talk about your larger money concerns, and that you both seem to be on different pages. Or the toys are not just about toys but larger concerns about the kids and responsibility or overall cleanliness of the house. Or you want to talk about your sex lives or how disgruntled you are on your job and that you’re thinking of quitting.
Writing this all down in an email gives you space to sort out your thoughts and put in qualifiers — that you are not trying to be critical or blaming or micromanaging — whatever you fear the other might think. And it gives them time to process what you are saying rather than getting sidewinded and unable to think on their feet.
Then have your face-to-face meeting.
Talk about yourself.
At this point in the conversation, you’re the only person with the problem. Here you get into a calm state and simply state your concerns: this has been bothering me; this is how I’ve been feeling; this is about me, but I’d like your help in fixing this problem. By talking in this way, you are taking responsibility for your feelings, your problem and are more likely to be heard and less likely to trigger defensiveness in the other.
And if they get defensive or angry…
If, in spite of this, the other person gets angry or upset, the problem is not off the table. The problem to fix immediately is the other person’s reactions. Here you do first aid by saying calmly and quietly:
Hold on. You seem like you are getting upset. I’m not trying to be critical and I’m not trying to hurt your feelings.
The other person may now calm down, or say yes, you did sound critical and you apologize, or they rant a bit to get their anger out. You listen, you say to yourself that they are upset, that you don’t need to get angry or defensive in return. If it helps, just imagine them like a toddler who is melting down so you don’t get triggered.
But if you do, do as above and say you need to take a break because you’re getting upset, not the other guy.
Focus on your solution.
Once you get out what you want the other person to understand about what is bothering you, you now need to turn the corner and say what you want as a solution — what the other person can do, propose an initial plan. This is not the time to get into the weeds of the past — how the other person didn’t follow through before or stacking up more facts to make your case about how the other person is irresponsible, or allow the other person to bring up their own complaints. Stay focused. Move forward.
Get feedback and decide on a plan that you are both willing to try.
Let’s set up a budget, try it for two weeks and see if it is working. Let’s get some bins from Target to help organize the toys. Or let’s talk more about the job, help me look at Monster.com this weekend for possible options. Let’s go for a few sessions of couples therapy.
And if you remain calm and still hit roadblocks about moving forward, shift the focus to the roadblock: I’d like to come up with a plan that works for both of us, I’m not trying to be micromanaging or controlling, but we seem to be getting stuck. What’s going on? What are you having a hard time with?
And then focus and clarify to untangle those roadblocks.
Again, these are all skills, not personality makeovers. The keys are listening and using listening as your go-to to lower the temperature; remaining calm even if the other person isn’t; moving forward and coming up with a plan with concrete behavioral goals that both of you can get aboard with and know exactly what to do.
Ready to craft your ideal conversation?