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Conversations From Pain: How to Engage in Difficult Conversations

Steven Topper LCPC

One of the more challenging things to do is tell the people close to us that they’ve bothered, frustrated, disappointed, or hurt us. We tend to be conflict-averse, and even when we aren’t, we can do more harm in the ways we communicate these emotions. Navigating these choppy waters can be so difficult that many of us attempt to avoid these conversations, resulting in resentment, anger, and passive-aggressive behavior. There are many helpful strategies we can engage in when it comes to having difficult conversations, including remaining open, aware, and engaged, being honest, avoiding vilifying, and holding perspectives lightly.

As a communal species, cooperation has been important to our survival and progress. We may even be able to point to our ability to cooperate with one another as a key to becoming top of the food chain. Lately, it seems most of our conflict is done online. Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, or maybe text messages become the forum. So many of us greatly prefer to engage in less direct conflict than face to face. Why is that? Conflict can be enormously uncomfortable, especially when we’re used to avoiding it. We get embarrassed, worried, angry, and lose touch with our sense of the here and now during these difficult conversations. Further. we’ve been taught (implicitly and explicitly) that conflict is bad. And if we can avoid it, we’ll be more successful in life. Agreeableness is a personality trait that often allows people to succeed professionally and personally. Importantly, we are mostly taught growing up about cooperating. Less frequently are children learning conflict resolution skills. This results in a skills deficit and makes us more likely to avoid these tough talks. The cycle repeats itself as the more we avoid, the more our skills deficit grows. Often the first step is to simply attempt to have the conversation. This gives us exposure to the difficulties associated with the experience. Practicing being direct through openness can help us face these conflicts more simply and more earnestly.

Letting go of attempts to control the response of our interlocutor can be one of the most helpful ways to remain open and engaged. We often want the people we’re talking to to respond in specific ways and at times, our efforts to get them to those ideal responses leads us astray of our ultimate goals. I may try getting someone to apologize for doing wrong at the cost of expressing myself honestly. A few ways we may attempt to control the other person are by softening certain aspects of the experience (Leaving out details that might implicate us), embellishing, and attempting to convince the other person that our viewpoint is right. Letting go of these attempts to elicit a particular response will look like being honest, patient, and focusing my attention on saying what I need to say rather than getting the other person to see my viewpoint.

One thing we may often do in arguments is attack the other person. We tend to take our emotions and turn them into a courtroom. The goal becomes to win the case and our perceived reward is justice and apology. However, when hurt by the people in our lives, one of the tradeoffs to winning the court case is that we often vilify the other person. They become the persecuted. It’s only natural that they may respond defensively (after all, someone has to play the defense in this courtroom metaphor). Awareness of the urge to attack and prosecute the other person can help us avoid turning the conversation into a trial. Instead, pivoting to honesty, focusing on our own feelings and emotions (dignifying them through not having to defend them), and holding perspectives (both ours and the other person’s) lightly can make for a more meaningful conversation.

The final strategy for engaging in conflict is being honest. This may be one of the most challenging things to do when in conflict because we often want so desperately to be heard and understood that we leave the truth behind in order to attain those desires. One outcome of leaving the truth behind is that we are disrespecting our own suffering. If I have to lie in order to communicate my hurt, then I’m implying that I didn’t have a good enough reason to be hurt in the first place. We need not justify our hurt or disappointment, we only need to validate it. And honesty around what we’ve experienced is the best way we can validate our own pain. This also frees us up to remain mindful and patient within the conflict as we’re more likely to hear and understand the other perspectives when we aren’t trying so hard to have ours be heard.

With honesty, patience, awareness, and openness it’s possible to have meaningful conversations around our pain and hurt. While these conversations are never easy, utilizing the tools above allow us to advocate for ourselves with honesty and integrity.      

Talk to your therapist to learn more ways to gain support in having difficult conversations. Contact Symmetry Counseling today to meet with one of our Chicago counselors in-person or via online counseling.

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