Nine Steps to a Successful Difficult Conversation With Your Partner

by Helene Brenner | Jul 18, 2022 | Art of Feeling, Emotional Intimacy

In our first blog in this series, we talked about setting the stage for a difficult conversation. We talked about getting clear within yourself about what you want to say, planning a good time to bring it up and not “ambushing” your partner, and leading with vulnerability. This was all about making it as emotionally safe as possible to start talking about this prickly matter. 

In our second blog, we talked about the emotional subtext of difficult conversations that make them so hard to start, and so hard to keep our balance while we’re in the middle of them. 

Now here you are. You’ve done your prep work, you’ve thought things through, you’ve gotten your partner’s attention and you’re about to share the troubling matter that’s been on your mind. 

What do you do now?

1) First, Connect 

You’re feeling nervous and vulnerable, so there can be a tendency to rush into it, not look at your partner very much and hope that they just “get it” so you can get this whole thing over with as quickly as possible.

That’s totally understandable. But not the most effective.

The more connected you can feel to your partner at the beginning, and the more connected they feel to you, the more likely the conversation will go well. 

  • So take it slow. Sit across from your partner and really look at them. Make a lot of eye contact. Take a few deep breaths. If you feel nervous, it’s okay, let yourself feel it. It’s probably okay, and  even helpful, to tell your partner you’re nervous.
  • Keep your body in an undefended position to signal to your partner that you’re not preparing to fight. If you’re sitting across from them at a table, extend your arms and hands toward them. (You’re literally “reaching across the table.”) 
  • Start by bringing up something positive happening in your relationship, something you feel good about. By doing this you’re letting your partner know that you’re not attacking your whole relationship (and them).

2) Say The Main Thing You Have To Say, Simply. And Then Stop

When you’re ready, say in a sentence or two the main point of the difficult issue you need to address. Make it an “I” statement, or sometimes a “We” statement. For example:

  • “I’m upset at how many commitments you’ve made in the evening. I don’t get any time with you during the week anymore.” 
  • “We really need to talk about the problems Max is having in school lately. I don’t want to be the only one thinking about this.” 
  • “I know it’s hard to do, but I think we’ve really got to look at how much money is going out, and cut back somehow.” 

Do not start your main point sentences with “you.”

For example:

  • “You spend too many nights out.”
  • ”You don’t deal with our kids’ problems.” 
  • “You spend too much.” 

Those statements may be absolutely true and you’re dying for your partner to own up to it, but now is not the time. You’re only going to make them either defend themselves or placate you.

After you’ve said your main point, stop. The usual tendency is to keep making your point and making your argument to prove that they should agree with you.

Instead, totally stop talking and ask for their reaction.

In other words, say something to the effect of “What do you think of that?” or “How do you feel about that?”

And then wait for them to reply. While you’re waiting, try to look, and feel, as open-minded, and open-hearted, as you can manage.  

3) Make Sure It’s a Conversation 

A difficult conversation needs to be a conversation.That means that, no matter how wrong-headed or even selfish you think your partner’s being, they need to feel that how they feel is going to be heard and respected. As hard as it may be, listen to what they have to say. As long as they’re not putting out an all-out attack, understand and empathize with their point of view, even if you totally disagree. 

When you’ve heard what they’ve said, respond, don’t react

Have you ever noticed that when people have a bad argument, they usually sound like they didn’t listen at all to what the other person just said? Instead they’re waiting for them to be over to say what they were already planning to say, completely ignoring what the other person has just said, or else coming back with a rebuttal explaining why the other person is entirely wrong.   

You’re going to do something entirely different. 

First, show them that you were really listening by sharing with them what you think they just said, and even asking them if you got it right. Simply doing this one thing might completely change the tone of the rest of the conversation.

Then see if you can incorporate what they’ve said into what you say next. You still have your feelings and needs, but maybe they’ve been modified a bit by what they’ve said. 

This is connection. We live in a world where we’re talked at all the time. Voices come at us from every sort of media, shouting at us, shaming us, sometimes pandering to us. We may agree or disagree with what we’re hearing, but nothing we do or say actually changes what they say. It’s screen after screen after screen, leaving us parched, lonely, empty. 

But if I realize that you, my flesh-and-blood partner, actually took the time and energy to truly understand what I think and feel, and that it affected how you thought and felt, even changed it a bit, that’s different. That’s rain in the desert.

4) Talk About the Facts, But Talk More About the Feelings

But what if your partner is very defensive, or simply wrong? 

Let’s say you started by saying “we need to look at our finances and cut back somewhere” and they replied “I know you think I spend too much, but I don’t.”

Whoa! You were trying to be non-confrontational and they called your bluff. That’s exactly what you were really thinking. You know they spend too much—you’ve seen the credit card bills! You feel angry and manipulated: They’re not going with the program! 

You could say, “Yes you do!” but you know how that’s going to turn out. So what’s going on here, and what can you do about it? 

You can assume they’re in denial. They don’t want to give up something that makes them feel better. They may find the whole subject of finances overwhelming and even terrifying.

Only you know if their denial is so serious and their behavior so harmful that you have to take more drastic measures to safeguard your well-being. 

But if you decide their behavior isn’t too harmful, accept that in a situation like this, you don’t have a great deal of control over their reactions. You’re not going to fix this problem all at once. 

Lower the threat level. Really listen until you understand where they’re coming from. Empathize with how they feel. This may feel like you’re giving in, but you’re not. You’re not agreeing with how they see things. Then share with them your needs, your feelings, your concerns, and ask them to understand and help you

People who are highly reactive and defensive are very afraid, often of facing themselves more than they are of facing you. The safer they feel that you’re not condemning them, and the more they feel that you accept them, the more likely they will be to begin to look at what they’re doing and how it’s affecting you.

5) Frequently Throw In Connecting Statements

Difficult conversations seem to put everything on the line. They’re a high-wire act strung between “I want this relationship” and “I want a big change.” At any moment one or both of you can fall off into win/lose, attack/defend. All it takes is one comment or misunderstanding that cuts too deep.

For those moments, have at hand a collection of de-escalating and reconnecting statements– things to say to send the message that your intention is not to hurt or overpower your partner, or tear apart your relationship, but to be closer and make your relationship better. In the heat of the moment, these statements can feel like you’re “giving in,” but in fact they’re very powerful. They rescue the conversation.

Here are just a few things you can say when your conversation has started going south. Feel free to add your own:

  • I don’t want to fight. 
  • I’m not against you. We’re in this together.
  • That came out wrong. I’m sorry.
  • I’m listening. I want to understand.
  • There are a lot of good things about us too. 
  • I want us to work out. 
  • The only reason I’m talking about this is so we can have a better relationship. 
  • I needed to tell you. I’m so sorry to hurt you. I couldn’t feel “real” with you with this big secret inside me. 
  • Even though we’re having this awful argument, I still love you.

6) State What You Want, Too

By this point you may be thinking, “OMIGOD, you want me to listen and empathize with my partner so much! What about my feelings?” 

Of course your feelings matter. A lot! Say what you want. Say what you need. Say what you feel. And keep saying it. 

The only difference is that this is a dialogue, so you’re going to take what they say seriously (even if you think it’s all wrong or unfair) and listen to what they think, feel and say more than usual. And then answer with a respectful response, not an angry or hurt dismissal. 

This may take longer. But remember that if your goal is for them to hear what you feel, want and need enough to make a real change, it’s a lot more likely to happen if they feel like you appreciate why it isn’t so simple.

7) Honest Disagreement Is Better Than False Agreement

Sometimes we can feel so hurt and misunderstood that we want to make our partner agree to see and feel something the way we do–even if they don’t. This is usually a bad idea, especially if our partner feels at all coerced into it. Closeness comes when someone says what they truly feel, and gets accepted. In fact, it often happens that when a partner says the “unacceptable” truth and gets no recrimination, that’s when the barriers fall, and distance and defensiveness turn into caring.  

8) Accept the Bumpiness

Chances are this conversation is not going to go smoothly. One or both of you will get angry, hurt, frustrated or reactive. One or both of you may misunderstand the other or refuse to keep talking. Remain calm! This isn’t a sign that you’ve failed. Look to peacefully reconnect. If you and your partner have managed to have a difficult conversation for 15 minutes, they too may want to get it back on track. 

Very often bumpiness happens when your and your partner’s vulnerabilities collide. No matter how inadvertently it happens, if both partners’ insecurities get set off in close succession, the result can be combustive if not thermonuclear. If everything was going smoothly and suddenly you both sound certifiable, look for colliding vulnerabilities. There’s a lot more to say about this, so we’ll revisit this topic in future blogs.

9) Understanding Comes Before Resolution

You may not reach the resolution you hoped for when you started. But if you can reach a point where you both truly (no faking) understand better what your partner thinks, feels, wants and needs, then you’ve changed your relationship. You’ve moved it forward. The next conversation about this subject, if it’s needed, won’t be so fraught. 

But what if you have a partner who’s terrific at “understanding” and lousy at follow-through? Then that needs to be part of the difficult conversation. You need to talk about ways to ensure that the promised change happens. This, too, will be a topic for a future blog.

But even if the ending is inconclusive, if the two of you have been able to lower the walls to connect safely with each other around a difficult topic, you’ve succeeded in a very big way. You should be proud of yourself, and your partner! 

Go ahead and try it. And feel free to let us know in the comments section how it went. Best of luck to you!

About Larry Letich, LCSW-C & Dr. Helene Brenner

We’re Helene Brenner and Larry Letich. Helene is a licensed psychologist in private practice for more than 30 years. Larry is an individual and couples therapist. Besides being therapists, we’re co-authors and partners in life and love for more than four decades.

1 Comment

  1. Tony

    Thank you 🙏


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About Us

We’re Helene Brenner and Larry Letich. Helene is a licensed psychologist in private practice for more than 30 years. Larry is an individual and couples therapist. Besides being therapists, we’re co-authors and partners in life and love for more than four decades.

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