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  • Writer's pictureTena Davies, Clinical Psychologist, Certified Schema Therapist

How to have an effective difficult conversation

How to have a difficult conversation

Pick your moment

Make sure to address the problem when you feel level headed and they do too. Ask yourself-am I in my window of tolerance? Are they? Is now a good enough time?

Ask for permission

Asking a person for permission to have the conversation shows respect. Just like asking someone if you can use their bathroom show respect. People usually say ‘yes’ but it shows you respect their rights.


‘Hey I was hoping to talk to you about something, is now an ok time or would it be better to schedule another time?’

Increase Safety

Think about how you feel when someone says they want to talk? Does your heart skip a beat? Most likely, they will feel stressed out too. So create safety for them.


Don’t worry it’s nothing massive, I just wanted to tell you how I feel about something and try to work something out.

Say what you’ve noticed

Observe a pattern of behaviour that has been bothering you.


‘I notice when you cancel our plans it’s usually an hour or so before the event.’

Show vulnerability to elicit compassion

Tell the person how you feel about this by stating the emotional impact on you. Share with them both what you feel and what thoughts go through your head.


When you cancel at the last minute, I feel hurt because I start to think you don’t value me or my time.’

Check for understanding

Ask what they have observed to check if they are on the same page.


‘So that’s what I think and feel. What have you noticed?’

Acknowledge their truth

Acknowledge what they have said, even if you don’t agree with it. This means doing so without judgement. You don’t need to agree on what’s real, just how to get your needs met.


‘Ok from your perspective, you don’t feel it’s such a big deal because you don’t mean to hurt me. Is that right?’

Avoid arguing about who is right and instead focus on getting your needs met below.

Ask for what you need

Share with them what your need is.


‘I understand it’s not intentional, but I’m wondering if perhaps you could give me more notice if plans change, like a few hours before, so I have time to change my own plans’

Develop your BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiation Agreement)

In the example above, getting needs met depends on the person within the friendship. While relational needs can only be met within the context of a relationship, I’d still look at a BATNA. For example, if the need is feeling safe and connected to someone, then think of other ways to get that need met in OTHER relationships. For example, other friends, a partner, a social or work group. Or if the one friend habitually ignores text messages/doesn’t initiate catching up then only invite them to catch up where there will be other friends. This way there’s less pressure to get the need to connect met through the one person.

Things to keep in mind

Be generous and let them save face-rubbing it in will only make someone feel defensive particularly if they are to blame. To get your message across without tarnishing the relationship observe what they’ve done in general terms:


‘I notice you’ve been late a few times recently to work, is much better than ‘I’ve been documenting your tardiness and you were late on the 21st, 22nd, AND 24th.’

Be specific Ask for what you need instead of what you don’t want.


‘I need to feel respected and want to ask if you’d be willing to lower your voice is better than I need to feel respected so stop carrying on.’

Separate feelings and judgements

If feelings are communicated in terms of judgements, the listener may become defensive because they may feel attacked. To keep the listener onside communicate your feelings only.


‘I felt ignored when I didn’t hear from you’, is better than ‘You always ignore me and I feel that’s really unfair.

Having a difficult conversation is well…difficult, but the alternative, letting it fester and stew is much worse. A good relationship can be enhanced by addressing issues. So it’s worth doing when the person matters to you.

Tena Davies is Clinical Psychologist and Advanced Certified Schema Therapist/Supervisor. She is based in Clifton Hill, Victoria Australia. See for more details.



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