“We Need to Talk”: A Practical Guide to Having Tough Discussions
By Melissa K. Vassar-Belloso
So for the most part I’ve been making these blogs more about practical and personal topics close to the disabled but today I’d like to discuss something we can all get some use out of. At one point someone you know will have hard times and you’ll want to approach them about it. That requires talking. You may not think about talking as being something you can do right or wrong but in a serious situation there are definitely best practices for it. It can be scary trying to figure how to approach a person and discuss a serious problem with them. This is especially true when you factor in that each of us is a different person with our own unique perspective and comprehension of the world around us and the events happening around us. We’re living in a tough world with a myriad of situations that are increasingly tougher to talk about.
Think about your life right now and all the people around you that you have something to discuss with, whether it be a personal thing happening to them,a financial situation, or even a world situation you want to broach with your loved one. You might have a lot of conversations hanging in the air making life more difficult for you and the person you want to talk to but not know how to bridge that gap properly.Sometimes the biggest hindrance to people talking with each other more is not knowing how to start the conversation.
So here’s the scenario. You’ve noticed something serious is happening with a person you know and want to talk to them more about it so you can try to help. You know that first step is to get together with them and the only thing more stressful than asking someone on a date is asking them out to a venue to talk about tough topics. You know what the talk is for and most likely the other person does too so your first step to the right approach is honesty. Try to avoid sugarcoating or sweetening your reason for asking them out. Don’t mask it as a regular lunch date or wanting to catch up or have a “Girls’ Day Out”. This is patronizing and will make you seem disingenuous even if it’s not your intention.
If they’re at a difficult spot in their life they aren’t going to do a double-take when you come out of the gate real about wanting to talk to them. Try something like “I’ve been worried about you and want to see if we could talk about anything I can do to support you while you’re having a rough time.” or something like that. Promote understanding and honesty in the conversation. The person will appreciate the effort more and know you’re being sincere. When we dance around the truth of what we’re saying it does a lot more damage than harm and this sort of avoidance can actually drive a huge wedge if the person is suffering from significant depression or anxiety and already feels alienated or lost.
The next important thing is how you approach them. We live in a world where we have hundreds of ways to reach out to people but if you’re trying to broach a serious topic the only way that matters is real talking. If you can, put down an electronic barrier and approach them in person. Put down your phone and log out of Facebook. This is not how we should be communicating as people on real topics and especially when it comes to our inner circle of friends and family. If you are trying to open a channel for serious conversation as an effort of outreach, doing it via phone or electronic messaging is the worst way to do that. It comes off as cold and insincere. It can even make the situation more confusing because of the inconsistency in conveying tone with these methods.
If that person is someone you can go to in person then do that. They will appreciate it more and know your sincerity without having to guess. Most of all it shows you respect that person and feel a sense of urgency and concern toward the situation. The small step of going to them in person shows you’re willing to step outside your own comfort zone on their behalf. It makes a huge difference in comparison to a misinterpreted and cold message on an electronic device. Healthy communication has the cornerstone of actual interaction so stop hiding behind emojis,memes and text speak. Go out and talk to people if they matter to you. This is not only good for your relationship but a key part in how we as humans psychologically develop in things like emotions,decision making and building a healthy perspective on life in general.
The Key Factors
Before you go diving into planning and having the actual conversation there are a few things to consider first. Those things are to observe your tone,understand the context, and know your relationship.
So when we talk about tone it can be a sort of vague thing but tone is a subtle but also crucial part of conversation that needs to be used properly. We’ve already discussed that tone is best conveyed in person as electronic communication can sometimes create a barrier in comprehension but what tone should you be using? The answer isn’t always very straightforward and may even vary between people. While some people aren’t offended by sympathy the better route is to be genuinely empathetic.
False empathy is going to dig you a bigger hole so don’t try to fake how you feel in the person’s time of need. It’s better to be honest and if you have to fake empathy you aren’t helping the person in the long run and probably aren’t genuinely interested in helping them anyways. Keeping a tone that is open and honest at it’s core is key when reaching out to someone in need.
If you are going to maintain an optimistic tone, temper it with realism. You do want to make the person happier but you don’t want to leak into the territory of being fake or patronizing. It’s good to be positive but keep in mind the person needs a real solution more than a pep talk at the end of the day. They key to finding a proper tone for difficult conversations is balance. If you’re leaning too far into one area then balance it with something else appropriate.
Before you talk too much you need to make an effort to truly understand the context of the situation. It might be impossible to go in with substantial knowledge but take a moment to consider the person’s circumstances and what their current situation might mean for them. This will allow you to get yourself level-headed and non-judgmental prior to the meeting.
Try to get your own personal mindset to being open and understanding. Understand that even though you can’t fully see why the situation is serious, that it is a serious matter to the other person and you need to respect that. How right or wrong what you do or say will be depends heavily on the context you deliver it in. If you barrel in mindlessly and inappropriately it will just make things worse.
Knowing your Relationship
There are a vast number of relationships we can have with people in our lives and each one of those relationships has various levels of intimacy within them. One of the things we need to stop and assess when trying to open channels for discussion is what our relationship really is with that person. There will be a huge difference in how you approach the person depending on whether they are a friend ,relative, or a spouse and even more to consider regarding how intimate that relationship truly is. The quickest way to offend someone is to either overstep your boundaries or assume your relationship is something it isn’t.
This means we need to take the time to realistically figure out what level and type of relationship we have with the person and I mean the one you actually have,not the one you think you have or feel you’re entitled to be at. Never assume just because you are or should be at an intimate level with a person that you are indeed there. For instance, if you are a parent but you haven’t worked for a higher intimacy level with the child you’re trying to talk to,don’t take the liberty of assuming you just get that level of intimacy by default. It’s not uncommon for us to see the ideal relationship over the actual one and the unfortunate truth is that you aren’t always as intimately entwined with your friends and loved ones as it seems in your mind. Respecting the person means acting in honesty and while it might hurt we need to approach them at the level that’s best for them,not best for us.
When you sit down to consider where you want to take the person to talk your first mistake will probably be picking a public place. We have a lot of places we can go for social interactions and those places are great but if you’re trying to have a tough or private talk with someone think outside the box a little more. The key elements to consider when coming up with the place to take them is that you need them to feel safe and heard. While places like restaurants or even a therapist office might seem like a good idea,they are a bad move for the opening conversation. You need to gain the person’s trust and get permission to be part of their situation before making bold moves like that. Don’t assume you know what’s better for them or make any significant reaches in assuming what the situation is. It’s going to seem more like a SWAT raid then an intervention at that point.
Pick a location that is private,quiet, and most of all a safe and familiar place for the other person. They will be much more likely to want to meet you in that instance. When we use public locations to air dirty laundry we are subconsciously using it as a distraction and buffer to the real topic at hand. Likewise, when we propose to have a talk with a loved one in a public place it makes it seem like you don’t actually want to talk and commit to helping that person without an incentive or buffer in place. It’s like using a silencer on a gun to keep you in denial about shooting a gun. Don’t be afraid to hear that gunshot and really talk to the person in a setting where you can truly focus on them. It will make a world of difference and make that first talk a successful one.
There are a lot of times where we as humans assume and one of those situations can be with people. When we perceive knowing someone a long time or having a relationship that merits us some sort of insider view to that person we can fall into a trap of assuming we know everything we need to fix their problems. It means that you may not tread as carefully when broaching a tough topic with that person. The truth of the matter is that whether you’ve known a person five minutes or five years you need to go in as if you know nothing. When people are going through tough times the last thing they need is a know-it-all telling them how to feel or acting like they know the gravity of a situation without further time invested.
You should never go into a discussion about a person’s situation assuming you know anything. Your first move should be keeping your lips shut and your ears open because as scary as it is we don’t always know a person as well as we think we do. Wait until you really know before throwing out any suggestions or points to the person. If you go in vomiting out generic suggestions it makes you look arrogant and cold. The person will be much less likely to open up to you about their problems.
Be sure to avoid phrases that seem phoned in. Avoid phrases like “I know” or “I’ve been there” and don’t make promises you can’t keep. Promising sunshine and rainbows when the person is currently at rock bottom is presumptuous and will ultimately come off as being fake. The person is already in dire straits so coming out of the gate with an instant gratification response will really sour the interaction more than anything. Remember to be real and honest. You can be there for the person without using white lies and cookie cutter responses that don’t add to the interaction and may actually worsen the problem.
Don’t try to reach and relate to the person because relating to them surprisingly isn’t the point. Even if you can relate in some degree your main focus and your mindset should be that the person isn’t you. They are a completely unique person that deserves your time and respect. It’s condescending to circle things back to yourself and make that person less significant. Writing them off with a cookie cutter solution that worked for you is demeaning to the other person even if we don’t intend for it to be that way. If you take the time to understand their circumstances you can work on solutions that work for them. Most people going through a tough time don’t want to be related to because that actually adds to the gravity they’re already buckling under as opposed to helping. What will help them is someone listening to them and offering them an educated and honest perspective from outside themselves. A lot of people with anxiety and depression especially need to be pulled outside of their own minds and forced to see the world around them or hear a new outlook on their situation to start making steps to getting better.
In fact, a lot of people having problems in life just want someone to listen. The pain of feeling like no one is listening is a huge chunk of tough situations that cause people depression or anxiety. Not only are you suffering through a hardship but you also feel like you’re alone because no one is really listening to you. There’s a huge difference between listening and hearing. There’s also a huge difference between talking to and talking at a person. Figuring out which one you’re doing to the people in your life can be a huge eye opener and a key element to the success of helping address another person’s problems.
Lastly, don’t compare and contrast. This is a behavior that is very close to the reach and relate scenario because instead of paying attention to the person in front of us we want to compare and contrast them to ourselves or other people who we perceive as having the same problem as the person. Again,keep in mind the person that matters in this type of interaction is the person sitting in front of you,not you or your neighbor or friend who had the same thing happen last week. It’s demeaning to the person you’re trying to help if you see them as a case study or statistic. Don’t try to downplay the person’s situation or make them feel bad about being the level of upset they are. When we judge others like this we put on blinders to the situation at hand and gradually transform it into something generic and small, sometimes without realizing it. Even if it’s not a big deal to you it could be to the other person. It’s important to realize that we may not be able to see the full picture of what that person is going through or have a full idea of what their life is like. Come to the table with a mindset of learning and not teaching when it comes to understanding another person.
When we enter a situation of reaching out to another person we often do it with the same end goal which is the person not having the problem anymore. This can be done in a surprising variation on intentions and methods. In other words, the people reaching out to genuinely help and the people doing it for less savory reasons both have the same goal when interacting with the person having the problem. The difference is actually in execution and motivation. Not all people offer to help for a good reason.
For example, let’s consider an organization like the Red Cross. There a millions of people in the Red Cross who are ultimately all there to help in some degree. But think about why those people are there. There are people who join the Red Cross and feel a need to film or document everything they do to get some sort of return but there are also those there who work tirelessly and never expect public recognition. Those people might go into the situation with no camera but just willing hands and a strong heart. They’ve both helped but each party has a drastically different motivation and will create completely different results under the surface.
When we truly wish to aid another person we should expect nothing in return but still some significant level of effort on our part either way. In a perfect world everyone would say please and thank you but in a realistic world when we observe true altruism it has no tangible return guaranteed. It’s important that we understand our own motivations for reaching out to help another person because you may not be doing it for the right reasons. When you barrel in with the least messy solutions possible and keep a person at arm’s length, it may be time to reconsider why you’re there. You may not genuinely be there to help the person after all.
When you go in to help another person,do it because you actually care and want to invest in them as a person. Going in to benefit yourself or make yourself look or feel better is going to shine through at some point and not help you or the other person. When we do “good” things with the drive of benefiting ourselves it doesn’t always change the surface result of our actions but it does cheapen the action in some way and will eventually damage all parties involved. Knowing someone has helped you out of guilt,embarrassment ,or some other less genuine motivation actually makes you feel worse or like a charity case as opposed to someone people care about. You may have done something but in the process you’ve actually compounded the negative effects on the person you were trying to help.
It’s also important to consider what the help will ultimately look like for that person. Like the urge we might have to offer cheap commentary we may have a very basic view of the ideal solution for that person. There are multiple paths to success in any given situation and if we truly want to help we need to do so with an open mind. Don’t make the mistake of turning another person’s tragedy into a pirate treasure map where “X” marks the spot. Understand the person’s goals above everything else and help them figure out what they want out of the situation and how you can help with that. Don’t stretch yourself thin or say you can do things you can’t. That’s not helping. Help within your means and skill set.
You may ultimately only be part of the solution and not the whole solution. Don’t try to rush a solution because most problems aren’t solved overnight or with a simple one-stop source. If you’ve taken the steps you need to truly understand the person and their situation then understand what is reasonable when it comes to arriving at a solution. You may only be one part of what they need to turn things around. One of the most important things we can do in some situations is to truly be present and supportive for the person. Opening the channel of conversation and helping to motivate them to turn things around through other alternatives is a lot more valuable than you might think.
What you don’t want to do is base your investment level in helping them to what part you have. A big part of helping is realizing you aren’t always going to be the star of the show or get a participation award in life. If just being there for the person isn’t enough for you to give 100% then reconsider your motivations and how much your presence is really benefiting the person. Don’t make the focus of the process yourself. It should be about the other person. If it’s not you’re going to end up ultimately hurting the person more than helping. Likewise, if you need incentive to help the person or can find a significant personal goal beyond wanting to see them prosper you are probably there for the wrong reasons.
We live in a busy and complicated world that thrives on convenience but it’s important sometimes to stop and really consider what we sacrifice to get that sense of convenience. Let’s stop getting hooked on distractions and conveniences and start moving toward caring about the people and the world around us again,one meaningful conversation at a time. The more we realize no convenience or reward is worth lowering the value of a another person’s quality of life, the sooner we can create a world where people are truly communicating with and reaching out to each other without strings attached and shields up.
It’s time to stop being afraid,approach the people around you in need and truly be open to understanding them. Stop avoiding that difficult conversation and start building the foundations for real and honest communication.