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How to Have Difficult Conversations

By: Emma Campbell, Health & Wellness Intern & Dr. Ashley Yaugher, Health and Wellness Faculty, HEART Initiative 

Difficult conversation

Difficult conversations about things like money, relationships, or other emotionally-charged topics can be hard to navigate. These situations can come up in our relationships with friends, with family members, and with co-workers. Knowing how to communicate during these times can help you avoid saying something you might regret or wishing you had said it differently. The thoughts, “if I had just gone about it a different way, maybe they would have taken it better,” or “maybe I should have said this instead,” come to mind. We have all been there, so how can we do a better job of communicating during difficult situations in our many relationships?

First, there are some common negative communication tendencies that we should avoid during our interactions with loved ones or co-workers. Research has shown that there are “Four Horsemen” which can make communicating about difficult things even harder (Gottman & Silver, 2015). The Four Horsemen have been linked to increased rates of divorce, unhappy relationships, and other difficulties (Gottman & Silver, 2015). These include criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Criticism is an attack of a person’s character or personality, which is more severe than a critique or a complaint about a specific behavior (Gottman & Silver, 2015). Contempt is a lack of respect and feeling of superiority over a person and can come across as disgusted facial expressions and sighs (Gottman & Silver, 2015). Defensiveness often occurs when someone feels attacked and can look like deflecting onto the other person or blaming them (Gottman & Silver, 2015) Finally, stonewalling is ignoring someone when we feel like they do not respect us and is illustrated when we give them the silent treatment (Gottman & Silver, 2015).

Next, we should focus on what we can control during conversations, including the words we say, how we say them, and how we react to the other person involved. When going into a conversation about something difficult, it is important to mentally prepare and be in a good “head space” prior to doing so (Brodin & McLaughlin, 2019). After you are ready, and in a good place to communicate effectively, there are some strategies that can help make sure your communication about difficult things is more successful. Below are four ways to counteract some common negative communication tendencies during difficult conversations:

1. Replace Criticism with I-statements: For example, say, “I feel like we are spending too much money” instead of “You always spend all of our money” (Campbell & Yaugher, 2020). You could also say “I wish things were this way” rather than criticizing or blaming the other person (Hunsaker & Brower, 2019). It is important to say exactly how we feel in an assertive, but not in an aggressive way. This should reduce the likelihood that the other person will feel defensive or blamed.

 2. Replace Contempt with Finding Things You Appreciate in the other person: For example, say, “I appreciate when you help with our monthly budget” instead of rolling your eyes when the other person says something (Gottman & Silver, 2015). It is important to acknowledge even small positive changes or things that we want to continue seeing in the other person’s behavior, as this will make it more likely that they will keep moving in the right direction (i.e., positive reinforcement).

3. Replace Defensiveness with Taking Responsibility: For example, say, “I need to spend less on eating out,” instead of “I never spend as much as you do” (Gottman & Silver, 2015). It is important to accept responsibility or apologize when appropriate, as well as to show empathy for the other person. After all, this is likely a difficult conversation for them too. Showing compassion during a difficult conversation can go a long way toward building trust instead of creating defensiveness.

4. Replace Stonewalling with Taking a Break from the Conversation: For example, say, “I think we both need to take a break, let’s talk again in a little bit” instead of ignoring each other (Gottman & Silver, 2019). With breaks, it is important to remember to come back to the conversation for resolution, and not just ignore or move on from the issue. Try setting a timer for 20 minutes and then coming back to the conversation after you both have had a break. This will help build your relationship and/or reduce the likelihood of this same issue coming up again in the future.

By practicing the above skills and avoiding the Four Horseman, it is possible to successfully communicate about difficult things and improve your relationships. Remember, it is important to focus on our own communication in these circumstances, as we cannot control the actions of others. When we focus on our own responses, we are doing our part to make a difficult situation a little better for ourselves and the other person. Be sure to practice self-care before and after difficult conversations, as we cannot begin a difficult talk if we are not in the right mindset to do so. The resources below provide additional strategies to help you manage difficult conversations with ease.    



  • Brodin, T. M., & McLaughlin, M. K. (2019). Creating Powerful Personal and Professional Relationships Through Effective Communication. Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences111(2), 17-24.
  • Campbell, E., & Yaugher, A. (2020, July 14). How to Communicate During Stressful Retrieved from https://extension.usu.edu/relationships/how-to-communicate-during-stressful-times
  • Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work: A practical guide from the country's foremost relationship expert. New York, New York: Harmony Books.
  • Hunsaker, T., & Brower, N. (2019, August). The Sampler: 7 Tips to Communicate About Difficult Topics.  Retrieved from https://extension.usu.edu/weber/files-ou/July-August2019.pdf