7 Steps to Stay Steady in Tough Conversations

As a couples therapist, I help people learn to hold steady in very difficult conversations with their partner. I know this is not easy, because I had to learn it myself. My spouse, who is much more even-tempered than I, and has been an amazing and challenging teacher for me, particularly when it comes to holding steady and staying in the conversation.

Twenty-two years later, I find it comes much more naturally for me. We are able to make hard conversations look easy. We both know from experience that we can get to a mutually satisfying resolution even if we start off with strong differences of opinion. At least for me, learning to hold steady was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and it would have helped me a lot to know how good the payoff is. The payoff is great!

Today, I’m going to share some steps I take to stay in the game and minimize drama and suffering for both of us. Next time someone you love says something to you that really shakes you up, give this a try.

  1. Pause. Take a moment before you respond at all. Breathe. Breathe some more. Put your feet on the ground and steady yourself. Remind yourself of this: your partner is expressing something about themselves; their perceptions, beliefs, feelings, and meanings they make of various situations. Even if they are pointing their finger and accusing you of something, they are actually telling you about their perceptions, not some global truth. If you want to know them deeply, you will need to listen and get curious.
  2. Set aside your feelings for a few minutes. This was the hardest part for me. I am a person who believes in honoring and expressing my feelings. This is not the time. Remind yourself that you will give your feelings and opinions attention soon, and right now it is not your turn. You will honor your feelings after this conversation. Whatever is still lingering after a break can be expressed fully to your partner. They will be much more willing to hear you out after they experience how amazing it is to feel heard. Your job right now is to give them that experience. Listen. Get curious. Hold your emotions lovingly, and don’t express them yet.
  3. Don’t judge, argue, defend, or convince. Remember: this is someone you love. You respect them, and you don’t have to agree with them. You don’t ever have to agree with them about this. But it might be nice to understand what their internal experience is when this thing happens or this topic comes up. If you truly see this from their perspective, it will probably make some sense, even if their perspective is vastly different from yours. If you argue, defend yourself, or try to convince them you’re right, they will never confide in you about the fear, shame, or vulnerability that underlies their reactions. You will have missed an opportunity for connection.
  4. Get curious. Invite them to give you a tour of their internal culture. How do they see things? How did this get under their skin? What does this issue represent to them? Does this issue challenge something about themselves? The more curious you can get, the more connected you both will feel.  
  5. Focus on feelings and meanings, not details. As you get curious, ask your partner some questions about this activity, experience, or situation–whatever it is they’ve described to you. As you ask, focus your questions on their feelings, rather than on the specifics of the situation. Here are some examples of good questions:    
    • How did that go for you?   
    • At what point did things start feeling bad to you?    
    • What didn’t you like about it? What was going on for you inside?   
    • What did I do or say that made it worse? How did that make it worse?    
    • Can you explain to me how this felt so bad? What did it mean to you that I …(name the perceived hurtful thing here).
  6. Express empathy. At some point you will begin to see that this is about them, not you. For me, I can tell I’m there when I suddenly think “Oh my gosh, THAT’S what you think when I do that?? Wow. Well, of course you’re upset if that’s how you see it or that’s what you heard. That was not my intention, and I’m so sorry for the misunderstanding.”
  7. Post-process. Now is the time to revisit your feelings if they are still swirling around in a worked-up mass. See if you can think about it, journal about it, or let it go. This might be surprisingly easy. If you got all the way to empathy, and had an “aha” moment about your partner’s responses being different but nonetheless understandable, the hurt you felt might have simply gone away. If not, ask your partner if there is a time you could express your experience to them. When the time comes, focus on your feelings, perceptions, beliefs and meanings made. Express the vulnerability underneath the issue, if you know what it is. If not, ask your partner to help you get to the bottom of why this was so upsetting to you.

What do you do when these steps fail, and your conversation starts to turn into a fight? Read more in my post about how to stop fights from damaging your relationship.