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How to have tough talks

Top tips for how to say what simply needs to be said.


Written by SpunOut | View this authors Twitter page and posted in life


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Sometimes we all have to have that difficult conversation – the one we’ve been dreading forever.  Whether it’s with a friend, a parent, a partner or a work colleague it can be tough to get through.

You don’t need to be an expert to start talking about mental health or whatever the subject is and have all the answers. Sometimes the most helpful thing you can do is to let someone know that you are there for them and simply listen.

Although you can’t solve someone else’s problems, knowing the basics about how to support someone can really help you – and them.

How to start a difficult conversation 

Take your lead from the person themselves and ask how you can help. If you think that someone might be experiencing a difficulty, make it clear that you’ve noticed that they don’t seem like their usual self and suggest that if they ever want to talk that you’ll be there for them. If you know someone has been unwell, don’t be afraid to ask how they are. They might want to talk about it, they might not. But just letting them know they don’t have to avoid the issue with you is important.

Take the pressure off yourself by not trying to rush to find solutions or comparisons. We often fall into the trap of jumping straight in with something positive or wanting everything to be ‘okay’ but what the other person really needs is to be listened to. It’s okay not to have answers and to say that you don’t.

It doesn’t always have to be a big conversation about a difficult topic. There are lots of small ways of showing support -just be yourself and listen. Send a text or just ask someone ‘how they’re doing’ – and mean it. Little things can make a big difference.

Try to avoid clichés. Phrases like ‘Cheer up’, ‘I’m sure it’ll pass’ and ‘Pull yourself together’ definitely won’t help the conversation! Being open minded, non-judgemental and listening will.

If someone needs urgent support there are loads of available services to help. Contact your GP or local hospital in an emergency.

Tips for handling tough conversations 

  • Don’t keep putting it off.
  • Tackle it as soon as you can and get it done and over with.
  • Keep a positive attitude. 
  • Be prepared for it to be emotional.
  • Be honest and let the other person know that you want to talk.
  • Pick a time where you can have a good conversation without being interrupted
  •  Make sure to maintain eye contact when talking 
  • Touch is also a good sense to use and connects you to one another
  • Try to reflect back what the other person is saying 

Other things to remember

Be prepared to wait. You may not be able to have the talk when you bring it up. So you may need to set a time with the other person in advance.

Use 'I' statements rather than 'you'. Saying "I need to be listened to better" will go down much better than "You never listen to me", for example.

Come to a compromise. You may not get what you want exactly, but by the end of the discussion you should feel that both of you have gotten something from the discussion and have come to some type of agreement.

Get some outside help. If you can’t solve the issue, you may need a different perspective in the form of a counsellor, a friend or a work colleague. There is nothing wrong with needing professional help and it may be of great value to you.

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Published Jan­u­ary 15th2013
Last updated May 30th2018
Tags tough talks relationships mental health
Can this be improved? Contact editor@spunout.ie if you have any suggestions for this article.

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