We need to talk – these four words can fill the most fearless person with dread. It could be about a sensitive sexual issue, money or an interfering mother-in-law. Whatever the topic of conversation, we occasionally have to face difficult discussions with our partner. “Money, sex and extended family are commonly argued about among couples,” says Andrew Burnard, a Joburg-based psychologist. “These are often issues that people have very strong personal views about, and so they can become trigger issues for some couples.”
Here are 8 steps to you help deal with difficult issues in your relationship:
1. Have clear intentions. Difficult discussions aren’t an opportunity to score points or play power games. Be clear about your true intentions before starting the conversation and approach it with a positive end in mind. Making a list of questions you have and what you feel you need from them will also help you to stick to the topic.
2. Timing is everything. Tell your partner you have something important to talk about and ask if it’s a good time. If it’s not a good time, make a plan to chat later so that you can both focus on the conversation. A quiet moment at home is the ideal place. Don’t raise difficult issues when one, or both of you, is already upset. This is a recipe for a fight, because sensitive talks require a calm head.
3. Start smart. Be open and calm when approaching the conversation. Sensitive issues require a sensitive approach, so being defensive or aggressive or playing the blame game will set the conversation up for failure from the start. Remember that the non-verbal behaviour, like body language and tone of voice, are as important as the actual verbal communication.
4. A direct approach is the best approach. Most people prefer a difficult issue to be addressed directly and honestly, rather than through vague hints. Be sensitive, but honest. Talk frankly about what you feel and think and then ask your partner for feedback on his/her own feeling and thoughts. Setting honest rules at the beginning of your chat can also make the discussion calmer. These ground rules could include no interrupting, swearing, raised voices or name calling.
5. Avoid assumptions and blame. It’s not what you say that counts, but how you say it. Don’t blame or accuse your partner of something you’re uncertain about. Don’t just assume you know why your partner has acted the way he/she has. Simply aim to speak your truth and allow your partner the space to express his/her opinion without allowing blame and assumptions to cloud the conversation.
6. Be willing to be wrong. It’s often easy to assume things about your partner or misread what’s said. Sometimes an apology or a change of mind is completely appropriate. Acknowledging when you’re wrong and agreeing to move forward, by showing fairness, are the key to a successful interaction with your partner. Holding grudges and stubbornly refusing to give an inch will only worsen the situation.
7. Ask for feedback. Asking for your partner’s input reduces his/her defensiveness and allows themm to actively participate in improving the situation. It’s also important to understand how your partner communicates so that you can communicate with them in a way that makes the most sense.
8. What next? So, you’ve had the big talk. Now what? It’s crucial that you agree on what both of your expectations are moving forward and to decide on what steps to take in the future. Most situations require compromise on both sides. Acknowledging the other person’s point of view is equally important when agreeing on a mutual action plan to improve a problematic situation. Ending your talk by thanking your partner for their willingness to communicate, and letting them know how much you love them, will end the conversation on a positive note.