Handling tricky conversations

When an awkward ‘chat’ needs to be tackled, here’s how to go about it without landing your foot in your mouth…


The ‘we need to talk’ moment

Your other half is overspending, not pulling their weight or shirking their responsibilities. How do you make your point without being confrontational? “Start by asking yourself, ‘Am I being reasonable?’,” suggests counsellor Christine Northam. “Because if you have any doubt, you won’t assert yourself fully. It can help you to be more objective if you write the issues down on paper.

“Approach your partner when they’re relaxed and say you have something important to discuss with them. When would it be a good time to talk? Set an agreed time, then ask them to listen without interrupting. Add that once you’ve finished, you’ll be happy to listen to what they have to say without any interruptions.

“As you talk, start every sentence with the words ‘I feel’, ‘I have been feeling’ or ‘If this continues, I know I will feel…’ This is you taking responsibility for your own emotions and letting your partner know how their behaviour affects you without using blame.

“If things get heated, or you come to a deadlock, STOP. Agree to go away, mull things over and return when you’ve both calmed down. Then go through the process again. Even if you can’t see eye-to-eye, you should get to a point where you reach a compromise.”


The ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ conversation

It’s natural to want to offer your condolences at such an emotional time, but how to do so in a meaningful way? “Don’t say you understand how the bereaved person feels – nobody can understand exactly how they are reacting to their loss. But what you can do is say how sorry you are, and offer help and support,” says funeral director Paul Williams.

“Your friend or relative may react by getting upset and crying, being irritable or not knowing what to say. If there are any silences in the conversation, don’t feel you have to say anything – the bereaved person may simply want some space. All this is normal. The greatest gift you can give your friend right now is showing that you care, and can cope with their emotions – whatever they are.

“Do ask your friend if they need help with practical things like cooking, their finances or letting others know about the bereavement. And make sure you stay in touch with the bereaved person and ‘check in’ with them frequently. Many bereaved people say that others appear to care for a while, then pull back – leaving them feeling very isolated.”

For more help, see Cruse Bereavement Care.


The ‘stop interfering’ parent chat

They think you’re too soft with your teen or too strict with your toddler – either way, you want the interfering to stop. So how do let them know without making them feel unwanted?

“You should start ‘the talk’ by acknowledging the positive,” says Christine. “Many grandparents do a lot for their grandchildren, so try, ‘We want you to know that we really appreciate all you do for us and the children…’ then add, ‘But when it comes to, whatever the issue is, we have talked it through and we think that our son or daughter is benefiting from x, y and z by the way we are bringing them up.’ This way, you’re presenting a united front with your other half and are showing you’ve given the situation a lot of consideration.

“Now reiterate how supportive you find them, ‘You’ve been so helpful in the past… we really hope you’ll support us in this, too…’ and finish the conversation by asking, ‘What do you think?’ which is your way of showing you still value their opinion. In the unlikely event of them continuing to be critical, at least you’ll know you’ve stated your case in the most civilised, mature way.”


The ‘I really don’t want to say this, but…’ short straw

You’ve been volunteered the unwelcome task of letting a colleague know their behaviour or personal hygiene is not acceptable. Where do you begin? “Timing is all-important,” advises occupational health expert and professor Sir Cary Cooper. “You must approach your colleague when they aren’t stressed or in the company of co-workers as that would be unfair,” he adds.

“Offer to take them for a coffee and be as non-confrontational as possible. Start with something along the lines of, ‘I’m pleased I’m having a chance to chat with you. There’s something I want to tell you, because I care about you and I think you need this feedback.’ That way, you’re letting him or her know you’re on their side. Now tell them the problem – straight. Highlight what the issue is and add, ‘There’s no easy way to tell you, and I don’t want to hurt you. But equally, I don’t want other people talking behind your back’.

“Keep emphasising the fact that you are on your colleague’s side, that you are doing this as a caring co-worker and so co-workers don’t turn against them. And don’t feel bad – you’re doing them a favour. Whether they choose to act on your advice, however, is a completely different story…”


The ‘I’m worried about you’ opportunity

Your teen has started coming in late and you suspect they’re getting up to no good. It’s time for a talk… but how do you get them to listen without making things worse? Christine says, “This isn’t a discussion you can have alone with your child – you need the support of another adult who cares about them too, preferably his or her other parent. If this isn’t possible, get the support of a loved and respected grandparent or family friend.

“Sit your child down and say, ‘Dad/Uncle Tim and I have been talking about the fact that you’re coming in too late/have been drinking/smoking. What you’re doing isn’t safe, we’re concerned about what it will do to you.’ This means you’re setting boundaries. You’re telling your child – in a gentle, non-confrontational way – that what they’re doing is unacceptable.

“Now ask them if they feel what they’re doing is safe. This should lead to a conversation about what they’re getting up to, how it affects their well-being and what they can do about it. It might not lead to an immediate resolution, but at least the lines of communication and negotiation are open.”

And if your child won’t talk, and is secretive and withdrawn? “Teens close down when they feel unsafe – perhaps your child is dabbling in something that makes them feel afraid. So it’s vital to model a willingness to be honest, open and reasonable in the hope your child will mirror your behaviour. Try, ‘I’m not going to blame you if you tell me things that might upset me. I would rather know.’ And, as your teen hopefully opens up to you, stay true to your word!”

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