8 Strategies for Having Difficult Conversations

Two men sit on stumps by a lake having a difficult conversation as the sun sets.

Hey there. How are you? Finding it hard to focus? Feeling a little sad and anxious? Or maybe you’re okay. However you feel, know you’re not alone. There’s a lot going on right now, and with it a lot of anxiety over how to talk about the tough stuff without making matters worse.

Just know this: When it comes to managing our mental health, silence is not the answer.

“When people are willing to communicate with honesty and candor, and at the same time with mutual respect, an exchange of perspectives can take place that may lead to a new way of seeing and being together.”
—Jon Kabat-Zinn, author, Full Catastrophe Living

Conversations about hard issues can bring people together and help drive consensus, especially if they’re conducted with care. For instance, a 2020 study brought together pairs of people on opposite sides of polarizing topics, like abortion or euthanasia. When the pairs considered multiple viewpoints, every single one was able to co-author a joint position statement. Joint statements are a sign that the pair is likely to resolve a conflict.

Among the pairs that considered a more simplistic, black-and-white framing of the topic at hand, only 46% were able to generate a joint statement. (For more information about this research and how to apply it, read chapter 8 of Think Again by organizational psychologist Adam Grant.)

If just the thought of having a conversation with someone you disagree with makes you anxious, keep reading. Below are 8 strategies that can help ease that stress. Plus, tips on how to process — and grow from — the experience.

8 rules for more constructive conversations

The root word of communication is communion, which means to share intimate thoughts. It doesn’t always mean coming to an agreement. It means there’s a flow. A willingness to open up. To listen and be heard. To understand and be understood.

Here are mindful ways to tackle those tough talks. The hope is that maybe, just maybe, we can find harmony. Even if we disagree.

Keep the gloves on

Mutual respect is rule #1. If you don’t respect the person you’re talking to then you may want to avoid having a conversation at this time. All parties should enter the conversation with positive intent — to understand and be understood.

Think it through

The most important conversation is the one you have with yourself. Take a moment to collect your thoughts and the points you want to make. Then, stay on track and in the moment. Avoid bringing up unrelated topics. Know what your anchor is. Refer back to it regularly.

Stick to the facts

State what you know to be true. This doesn’t mean you have to be a historian, medical expert, or political savant. Your lived experiences are true for you. The same goes for the person you’re speaking with.

Aim for dialogue. Not monologue.

Ensure people have a chance to be heard. Avoid raising your voice and interrupting or talking over people … even if they’re using these tactics.

Listen. Listen. Listen.

Instead of solely trying to prove your point, listen with the intent of understanding what the other person is trying to say. What can you learn from this conversation? What light can they shed? Is there something you hadn’t previously thought of? Or considered? Listening makes people feel seen, heard, and valued. This can greatly increase the odds they’ll do the same for you.

Stay calm

Emotionally charged conversations can be extremely stressful. This can make us only want to engage with people who already agree with us. When we keep our emotions in check, we open up consideration for other points of view and expanded thinking. If you need to step away from the conversation to collect yourself, that’s okay too. Remember, the loudest voices aren’t necessarily right.

Use appropriate language

Tuck away the insults, stereotypes, and triggering comments. (Review the previous step if necessary.)

Show genuine interest

Use the tips below to help your conversation partner feel seen, valued, and inspired to return the favor.

  • Put away distractions. Turn off the phone. Pull out your earbuds. Make eye contact.
  • Repeat words or short phrases back. This lets the person you’re talking to know you heard what they said. For example, “You said you think what happened is unfair. Okay, can you help me understand why?”
  • Respect personal experiences and emotions. Refrain from making dismissive comments like, “It’s not a big deal.” Or “You’re overreacting.” Instead, say, “I hadn’t thought of it like that. I understand now.” Or, “I was wrong. Thank you for correcting me.”
  • Ask questions. Go beyond the obvious and dig a little deeper. Ask questions like, “Why do you feel this is the best option?” “What was considered when arriving at your point of view?” “Can you tell me more about how you feel?” Or, “Can you explain why you think that?” In response, try saying things like, “I feel ___ because of ___.”

Beyond the talk: How to grow from the experience

Kudos to you for mustering up the courage to tackle the tough stuff. After a hard conversation, take time to think about and process what you discussed. Journal your thoughts. Write down what you learned, what you wished you had said, or what you could have said differently. Ask yourself what you learned about yourself and others.

This kind of mindful introspection can help you recognize your trigger points and blind spots. Over time you’ll become more comfortable approaching challenging conversations.

Remember, none of us is perfect. We may sometimes flub in our attempt to gain understanding, forget to mention something, or upon later reflection, have a change of heart. It‘s okay to revisit conversations and even concede ground if need be. In the end, we may have to agree to disagree to avoid jeopardizing relationships with people in our lives.

It can also help to stay up to date on current events. As the study above notes, developing a more complex, nuanced view of issues can drive more constructive conversations with people who share opposite viewpoints.

So read interesting books. Get involved in your local political process. Look for opportunities to embrace different cultures through food, art, and community. Develop an interest or hobby outside your immediate sphere. There are times when what we perceive as differences may actually be strengths.

The bottom line

In his book, The Art of Communication, the late Thich Nhat Hanh advised that we listen and speak from a place of compassion, boiling down effective communication to 4 key elements:

  • Tell the Truth. No fibbing or turning the truth upside down.
  • Don’t exaggerate. Just the facts, please.
  • Be consistent. No double talk; saying something one way to one person and the opposite way to another.
  • Use peaceful language. No insults or condemnation.

In the midst of conflict, it’s important to remember that the goal is to preserve our relationships, not let differences of opinion tear us apart. By approaching difficult conversations from a mindful, respectful point of view, maintaining openness, and seeking the greater good, we can lay the groundwork for less stressful communication, greater understanding, and common ground.

By Roxane Battle

Roxane Battle is the VP of Advocacy and Community at AbleTo. She uses her gift of storytelling to make mental health care more relatable and accessible, especially among marginalized communities. Prior to AbleTo, Roxane spent over 20 years as a news anchor and Emmy-nominated reporter at NBC Minneapolis, CBS, and FOX. Roxane was named an Architect of Change on mariashriver.com and has been featured in Working Mother and Ebony magazines. Her self-help memoir, Pockets of Joy: Deciding to Be Happy, Choosing to Be Free (Whitaker House, 2017), became an Amazon bestseller in multiple categories.

Clinically reviewed by Sarah Dolling, LPC, Clinical Content Producer at AbleTo.

Photo by Aaron Blanco Tejedor/Unsplash. Individuals in photographs do not represent AbleTo participants.