Bringing up painful subjects is often, well, painful. And if what you have to say is received poorly it makes the topic all that much more volatile. For a higher success rate and less tears, I highly recommend being strategic in how you approach difficult topics. Here are four specific, concrete tips that will help you increase the chance of getting what you want out of these potentially painful conversations.
1.) Timing- wait until your partner is available to hear you and is able to pay attention to what you you’re saying. Note: bedtime is awful for this. After a long, busy day most men do not have the emotional/mental bandwidth to have intense conversations. It’s like asking them to run a mental mile at the end of the day and usually ends badly if you attempt it. Better times are: in the morning after a good night of restful sleep, after sex when he’s more likely to feel connected to you (and less likely to become reactive) or on a weekend day that’s fairly relaxed. I won’t get into the nitty gritty too much, but the female brain is designed for rapidly switching between emotion and logic. The male brain is not. This means while it may be easy or even effortless for you process and share your feelings any time, it’s not the same for your partner. In fact it’s often an exhausting and delayed process for men to do this, and to truly feel comfortable they need to be able to give the topic at hand their undivided attention. This means no TV, no children present, not in the middle of a work day, not in the car on the way to dinner, etc. You’ll get a much more present, accessible partner if you chose an optimal time and environment .
2.) Vulnerability is the best approach. How you say what you have to say is often more impactful than the actual words you’re saying. This means if you want to be heard and understood, you can’t come from a place of judgment or anger. It’s not effective to tell someone how they’re screwing up and how mad you are, because it’s unlikely they will hear anything other than your angry tone and body language. Instead try using vulnerability. “How do I know if I’m being ‘vulnerable’?” you ask. Brene Brown (the super genius expert on vulnerability and shame) gives a great self-test to find out. Vulnerability should “sound like truth and feel like courage.” The truth part is usually easy, but the courage part is often lacking. Judgement. Anger. Criticism. None of those take courage. Next time you have something important to say, ask yourself if it’s coming from a place of truth and courage before you say it.
3.) Reference yourself. This is a classic couples therapy technique, but an incredibly powerful one. Using “I” statements is an easy way to keep the focus on yourself and decrease the likelihood that your partner is going to become defensive. Focus on your experience, emotions, etc and try to avoid referencing your partner all together. Does that sound impossible? It’s not. Here’s an example of the same message from each reference point:
A.) You’re always on your phone at dinner. It’s so rude and it makes me feel like you don’t have any interest in talking to me.
B.) It’s important to me that we spend quality time together each night at dinner. Sometimes it feels like our phones have taken over and we miss out on the great conversations we used to have. What do you think?
See the difference? It’s easier than it sounds and with practice will come naturally.
4.) Leave it open ended. Stop trying to provide the solution to all of the problems. At the time it might feel like you’re problem solving by working hard to come up with the answer to an issue, but it can come across as bossy or controlling. This means instead of finishing up the sharing of your feelings by telling your partner how this can be fixed ( meaning how he can alter his behavior to better meet your needs or at least stop trampling them), you ask him to share his perspective and help you brainstorm solutions. Everyone is more likely to buy into solutions and plans that they help create. It’s the difference between working together to fix things versus him feeling like he’s being told what to do. Providing a full solution is rarely appreciated and more often resented. The example in #3 demonstrates how to invite him in to finding a resolution together.
Next time there’s something you need to share with you partner that you think has the potential to be painful for either or both of you, consider using these tips to lessen the tension and lay the foundation for working together to find a solution. A little bit of strategy goes a long way when we’re discussing difficult emotions.
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