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How to have hard conversations- that go well!

The #1 problem couples and families identify when seeking therapy~

“We can’t communicate.”

The #1 goal couples and families identify when seeking therapy~

“We need tools for better communication.”

Since most couples and families LOVE each other and want healthy relationships-

What’s really going on?!

  1. Loved ones are NOT sending a clear, vulnerable message or it’s a rigid, critical message that may also contain anger or no emotion. (ineffective “reach”)
  2. Loved ones are NOT open and unwilling to listen and respond with empathy to their family member’s/partner’s clear message. (inadequate “response”)

Why do loved one’s struggle to communicate effectively?

  • Effective personal communication wasn’t taught or practiced in their family of origin.
  • Many adults today learned either to AVOID hard conversations/conflict or to engage in UNBRIDLED SELF-EXPRESSION.
  • Neither styles of communication allow individuals to feel safe, seen, heard and responded to- the ingredients for a secure bond.

In this blog~

  • I WILL GIVE YOU 7 TOOLS that will allow you to have hard conversations that go well!
  • I will briefly explain the BARRIERS to successful communication since this is ESSENTIAL to being able to utilize the tools.

Why I wrote this blog~

EFT (Emotionally Focused) Therapists, like myself, do not usually teach “Communication Tools” in our sessions because the research from our model has given us a process that is MORE effective in helping our clients understand and change their interactional and intrapsychic patterns (& work through blocks) to strengthen their bond for the long-term.

However, many of my clients have asked me for effective communication tools to use outside of sessions with loved ones who are unwilling to participate in therapy, in addition to honing one’s skills in between sessions. The purpose of this blog is to help my clients be more adept and empowered to have important conversations on their own.

If you’re wondering, “What if my loved one and I use these tools and still get stuck?”

You can always seek couples or family therapy or a workshop to help you strengthen your relationship skills, grow even closer and experience the relationship you deserve. (My spouse and I both have benefitted from these tools and professional help.)

Just a quick word about communication barriers… I often hear~

“Why do I have to learn about “blocks”?! I just want THE TOOLS!”

If you are struggling with a relationship and don’t identify and work through your blocks, which are FEARS, misconceptions about communication or a lack of relationship skills, you WON’T be able to utilize THE TOOLS for effective communication.

Can you relate to any of these “BLOCKS”?

If I open up and share my emotions, thoughts, concerns, and needs, I FEAR that…

  • My loved one will fall apart because I hurt their feelings.
  • My loved one will be dismissive, defensive, or withdraw from me.
  • My loved one and I will get into an argument or fight or be abusive towards me.
  • My loved one will reject or abandon me.

To remove the barriers to effective communication~ Identify the ROOT of your fear (usually family of origin), communication challenge or relationship skill deficit, and work through it.

*For more info: “Overcome Your Communication Barriers”- (link coming soon…)

7 Tools for having hard conversations- that go well!

1. Create and maintain emotional & physical safety. This is an absolute must in order to use the rest of these tools and have courageous conversations go well.

*If there is ANY type of abuse occurring in a relationship (emotional, verbal, physical or sexual) &/or unhealed past abuse, I recommend that you and your loved one seek professional help (together or alone- depending on the professional’s assessment) to restore safety and rebuild your relationship.

For couples and family relationships that have a foundation of safety and wish to strengthen your SKILLS in having hard conversations, please read on…

Tips for creating and maintaining safety during hard conversations:

Before initiating a hard conversation~

1st, Make sure your partner/family member and you are ready! (ready = have the time, emotional bandwidth, focus, etc.) Ask, “Can we have an *sacred conversation tonight or a different time this week?” Decide on a time with your loved one because pressuring another person into a hard conversation before they’re ready doesn’t go well. I know from experience.

(*Sacred conversation is the term that I use. You can use any word/expression that fits for you.)

2nd, Set up your environment. Some couples create a space (or make sure to have these items on hand) for positive bonding conversations as well as hard ones with a candle, matches, pillows, communication tip handouts, a clock, etc.) and put phones & other distractions out of sight

During your hard conversation~

1st, Get grounded and connected. Some couples/family members take the first 5 minutes to meditate alone or together (optional- with a candle lit) to calm your nervous system and focus on opening your heart and mind. During your meditation, you might focus (internally) on: how you would like the conversation to go, what you appreciate about your partner or solely be in the here and now. This step is extremely helpful in setting you up for success.

2nd, Agree on BOUNDARIES for emotional and physical safety and consideration of each other’s needs and capacity.

Here are some examples:

  • Time and place– Both loved ones have to agree (& might need to compromise) on the best time they can be focused and have the emotional capacity to be fully engaged. Hard conversations are best without an audience of children, in-laws, etc.
  • Length of conversation– (I usually recommend 60 minutes max & if both partners want a turn to speak- 25 min. each with 5 min. meditation at the beginning) This varies based on each couple and family’s communication and emotional regulation skills.
  • Both people get a turn to speak (just not at the same time & sometimes on two different days) Sometimes, one partner might need the entire 60 minutes to feel fully heard and understood and then the other partner might need to wait until the next day for their turn. I have personally found that this can work just as effectively as both having a turn during the same conversation.
  • Ability to stay “regulated” or relatively calm– If either loved one starts yelling, throwing things, slamming doors, is shaking from discomfort or worry, emotionally or physically shutting down or worse- the conversation needs to be PAUSED until both people are calm again or wait until a therapy session. If loved ones frequently get dysregulated/escalate, this is a sign that THEY need to learn self-regulation tools, which anyone can learn in therapy, yoga classes, meditation, etc.

2.) Decide on a STRUCTURE for both people to feel safe, seen, heard and understood/responded to.

***My favorite techniques are: The Feedback Wheel (by Terry Real) for the SPEAKER & M.O.V.E. CLOSER (drawn from Hendrix & Hunt’s IMAGO technique) for the LISTENER.

One couple described the process like this~

This was the first time in a LONG time that we were able to have a tough conversation without one of us escalating and the other getting defensive and shutting down.

That’s because there are NO steps in either process to “criticize/attack”, “defend/counterattack”, or “shut down/put up a wall”, which increase conflict and push loved ones farther away.

Instead, these techniques GUIDE loved ones to engage in effective speaking and listening skills that increase understanding, empathy and connection. 

The Feedback Wheel (for the Speaker)

*Begin with LOVE & appreciation~ “I love you and appreciate your willingness to hear me.”

4 Steps: (Try to keep each step within the 4 sentence maximum guideline)

1.) “This is what happened…” or “This is what I experienced…”

2.) “This is what I made up about it…” or “This is the story I told myself about it…”

3.) “This is how I feel about it” (use an emotion handout to focus on feelings because emotional expression (not a discussion of thoughts/opinions/”facts”) leads to EMPATHY.

4.) “What I would like…” or “This is what I would appreciate you doing now…” (if an emotional repair is needed) “and in the future…”

For each of the speaker’s steps, the listener will ask the speaker to pause… so they can use the mirroring, validating and empathizing skills to ensure that they’re hearing and fully understanding the speaker.

M.O.V.E. Closer (for the Listener)

M. Mirror (In small doses- politely ask the speaker to pause at times) Reflect back what you’re hearing, using loved one’s words or paraphrasing (without your interpretation)

  • Use these phrases, “I heard you say…”, then ask, “Did I get it?”, “Is there more?”

O. Open your heart for connection & empathy (one of my clients added this important step)

  • This step is best to do BEFORE the conversation begins (during a 5 min. meditation when loved ones are getting grounded, setting intentions and settling into the space).

V. Validate that your loved one’s feelings and thoughts are worthwhile and make sense (given their experience)

  • I LOVE this step because anyone can do this with complete sincerity and skill and STILL not agree with your loved one (or another speaker).
  • All you need to do is seek UNDERSTANDING and show RESPECT for your loved one’s experience.
  • Use these phrases, “I can understand how/why…” or “That makes sense that…”

E. Empathize or reflect understanding of your loved one’s feelings (notice the emotion words they use, read between the lines/attunement, their non-verbal body language is the GREATEST indicator of emotions and what you might be feeling on the inside)

  • Use these phrases, “I imagine you’re feeling…” (use a feelings sheet if helpful- okay to make more than one guess), Then, ask, “Is that right?” “Am I getting it?”

3.) Speak from your heart and listen from your heart.

When partners and family members SPEAK from their hearts, they’re able to be courageously vulnerable and authentic, show a range of emotions (which lie underneath anger, frustration and numb), and clearly express their needs, fears/pain/struggles, longings and love. (“reach”)

When family members and partners LISTEN from their hearts, they’re able to be more present, attuned (can hear their loved one’s deeper message), open, validating, empathetic AND respond in the way their loved one longs for or lovingly set limits, which maintains a secure bond. (“respond”)

Real Life Examples

Ex. (Loving response) One Mother’s Day, my husband showed empathy when I expressed my hurt that I only received a card and not a bouquet of flowers along with it. He immediately offered to go to the store, and then topped his offer by asking me if I wanted him to buy and plant perennials in our garden.

Ex. (Loving limit) One weekend day, I thought my husband and I had a date. He reminded me that he had informed me during the week of an event that day for a hobby he enjoys and validated my disappointment. He also reassured me that (although it wasn’t a date), he was still looking forward to our dinner and movie plans that evening with our son.

4.) Understand your interactional patterns or “cycle”.

The issues that couples and families argue about might sound like it’s all about the “content” (ex. Covid, where they’ll be celebrating the holidays, politics, etc.), but research shows that the root of the issue is the “process” or HOW they’re communicating.

In order to have BREAKTHROUGHS in hard conversations, you will need to increase your self-awareness (what’s happening inside of you & the impact of your behavior on your loved one) and understand the overall communication pattern with your loved one.

In EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy), we refer to these patterns as “negative cycles of distress/disconnection”. Our view is that:

You are both the victim and AUTHOR of your vicious cycles.

To change your negative cycles into more satisfying conversations and positive, loving connection, you (& ideally your loved one) need to be willing to explore your patterns of interaction together.

This takes courageous self-reflection, openness to feedback from your loved one and ideally support from an outside party (like a therapist) who can share what they’re observing in REAL time so you can try new “moves” and work through your “blocks” in order to establish a new pattern of interaction, which we call “positive cycles of connection”.

One of the most helpful acronyms for exploring communication patterns is T.E.M.P.O. (taught by EFT Trainer George Faller, LMFT) ~

T. Trigger (cue that begins a negative cycle of distress or disconnection)

E. Emotion (& bodily sensations)

M. Meaning (thoughts & “the story we’re telling ourselves”)

*(In addition to effective “reach & responds”, I have found that when loved ones acknowledge, work through and develop a new “M”, change most often occurs!

P. Protective behavior (ex. fight, flee, freeze, hide, please)

O. Organization (of the cycle)- putting it all together

Here’s an example of a couple’s negative cycle~ (from the viewpoint of one partner)

Trigger– “It’s Friday night and my spouse is late again for dinner.”

Emotions/bodily sensations– Anger on the outside, and hurt, sadness and loneliness on the inside, heaviness in chest, soreness in neck, headache

Meaning/thoughts-. “Her work is more important than me. She doesn’t even care about me. It wouldn’t matter to her if I just went out with friends tonight. If I confront her, we’ll argue and then she’ll be more distant.”

Protective behavior- (flees) Spouse at home (doesn’t contact partner first) instead calls a friend and goes out to dinner and leaves a brief note for partner “Out to dinner with …” (reinforces the negative cycle of disconnection & the belief that hard conversations aren’t possible …)

Organization- (Before this step can be fully done, loved ones and therapist need to “map” out these steps with the other loved one.

In EFT, we also use an Infinity Symbol to map out the patterns of your negative (& positive) cycles so you can see:

The more I ___________, the more you ____________”.

Ex. “The MORE I criticize you… the MORE you withdraw. The MORE you withdraw… the MORE I criticize you” and the cycle goes on and frays your bond. (negative cycle)

Ex. “The MORE I defend myself…the MORE you get angry and raise your voice. The MORE you get escalated (because your concerns aren’t being heard)… the MORE I defend/minimize/rationalize and might even counterattack” and the cycle goes on and frays your bond. (negative cycle)

Or, YOU can try a DIFFERENT “Communication Tool” to get a better outcome… If you’re not sure what new “move” to do, ASK your partner or therapist for ideas. They’ll have plenty.

Ex. (Instead of criticizing) “The MORE I make gentle requests (and am willing to hear your thoughts, emotions and needs too)… the MORE you are willing to respond and come closer to me. The MORE you are willing to be responsive and close to me… the MORE I want to be there for you too” ~ and the cycle goes on and strengthens your bond. (positive cycle)

Ex. (Instead of getting defensive) “The MORE I respond with *empathy (to your expression of anxiety/hurt/loneliness, or even anger- to a degree, etc.)the MORE you’ll be calm, clear and vulnerable (because you were heard and comforted in a genuine way). The MORE calm, clear, and vulnerable you are, the MORE I want to respond with empathy.” ~ and the cycle goes on and strengthens your bond. (positive cycle)

*Ideas for showing empathy~ are infinite!

Ex. Say, “I can see how _____ (hurt/worried/upset) you’re feeling. Tell me more what’s happening for you on the inside…”

Ex. Say, “I’m here”, “I’m with you”, and just look in your loved one’s eyes, and if appropriate, put your hand on their hand.

You can find more ways to show empathy in #4 “Practice the art of repair”…(in the Solutions to Barriers section of this blog……………………………………………….. and you can also strengthen this “muscle” by listening to “The Empathy Gym” on the Hidden Brain podcast.

If you would like to learn more about shifting your hard conversations from focusing on content to process, check out my other blogs~

“Sex, Mess, Kids, Work & Money- Resolving the Most Common Issues by Going Deeper”

“Transform Your Vicious Cycle into Positive, Loving Connection”

5.) Follow the 5 Positives to 1 Negative Rule (Gottman)

Dr. John Gottman is a marriage expert who can predict with 91% accuracy in just 15 minutes whether or not a couple will divorce.

The difference between happy and unhappy couples is the BALANCE between positive and negative interactions during conflict (sometimes a part of hard conversations). There is a specific ratio that makes love last (& I believe this applies to families too).

That “magic ratio” is 5 to 1. This means that for every negative interaction during conflict, a stable and happy marriage has five (or more) positive interactions.

If you’re skeptical of this high expectation and are asking yourself, “Do my loved ones REALLY need this many positive interactions with me to counter one negative one?!”

– ASK YOUR LOVED ONES 🙂 & if you want the truth, tell them you really want to know.

– Gottman explains, “Negativity holds a great deal of emotional power, which is why it takes five positive interactions to overcome any one negative interaction.” 

We ALL need MORE positive interactions to counter every day life challenges we face. Also, the more positive interactions we have with a loved one, the more resilient we can be during a hard conversation since the norm is POSITIVE.

3 examples of Positive Interactions are:

  • Express affection~ during and outside of conflict.

It may seem impossible to show your loved one affection in the middle of a conflict, yet this form of “co-regulation” is incredibly powerful! As soon as babies are born, we know that proximity, physical affection, eye gazing, comforting words and expressions of love are SOOTHING to them when they’re upset.

Since our attachment needs are the SAME from cradle to grave, try some of these techniques with your adult loved one or ask them about different types of affection (outside of a conflict) to know in advance which TOOLS would be most helpful for them during a hard conversation,.

  • Demonstrate they matter~ The Gottman Method’s motto for making marriage last, “small things often”, is like making DEPOSITS in a BANK. Small acts, during and outside of conflict, show you care, which helps your loved one view you and your relationship with more positive intent and hope that you can resolve the issue at hand.

There are an INFINITE number of ways, outside of a conflict, you can demonstrate your loved one matters. Ex. One couple’s story I’ll always remember- The wife told me that her husband always saved his pizza crust for her since he knew she loved that part of the pie.

For more ideas on “small things often”, look at my blog, Busy Parents Can Cultivate a Stronger Bond– the ideas in this blog are for ALL busy couples (parents or not).

One impressive way you can show your loved one they matter in relation to conflict is to be the one to INITIATE a hard topic or unresolved issue that you know is important to them.

  • Intentional Appreciation~ “An appreciation a day keeps the therapist away.”

Before being able to genuinely express words of appreciation, we must think them. One of my favorite tips in this Gottman blog is:

How you think about your partner influences how you treat them.

This probably sounds like common sense, but I rarely see this happening naturally with couples and families who are stuck in negative cycles of disconnection and/or distress.

If you remember 1 tip from this blog- this is a game changer!

Intentionally choosing more positive thoughts about your loved one will allow you to change your “moves” in your cycle, which will change your relationship!

3 examples of Negative Interactions are:

  • Being emotionally dismissive, critical, or defensive- during conflicts
  • “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” – another predictor of divorce. I describe these in the next section, “Barriers to Effective Communication”.
  • Loneliness and isolation

Keep in mind that ALL couples (& families), even the happily married couples and healthy families experience negative interactions- because we’re HUMAN. What matters most is that these loved ones are intentional about making positive interactions a priority & they quickly “repair” negative interactions with validation & empathy.

*For more information, see “The Magic Relationship Ratio, According to Science” – gottman.com/blog

6.) Learn and practice the art of “repair”

Couples and families who have a SECURE BOND are not afraid of making mistakes, less worried about occasional conflict and distance and more willing to have courageous conversations because they understand that it is NORMAL to experience:

  1. Connection or attunement
  2. Disconnection or misattunement (& sometimes even rupture)
  3. Reconnection or repair

They’re less likely to panic or feel despair when misattunement or even a rupture occurs because they trust that their loved one and they have the skills and willingness to effectively get back into synch and if necessary do the work of “repairing” the unintentional emotional injury.

They understand that no two loved ones in a relationship are always in synchrony or connection and thus apologizing and responding to your loved one in a compassionate, non-defensive way is a normal part of a relationship.

Couples and families that have a general practice of “repair” when they have a misattunement or rupture are going to have more successful hard conversations as well- because they KNOW that if their talk goes “south”, they will help each other feel heard and cared for, so they can reconnect in a loving way.

Here are effective tools for “Repair”:

1st, Respond quickly and empathetically to your loved one’s distress.

As soon as you notice a misattunement or especially a rupture, stop whatever they’re doing and check in with your loved one. As John Gottman, PhD says,

Baby, when you’re in pain, the world stops! And I listen.

By letting your loved one know you see their distress, apologize (if you were the cause- even if unintentionally), provide validation and empathy AND if you’re loved one does not want to address their hurt in the moment, let them know, “I’m here to listen when you’re ready” and give them space. (as long as the space isn’t excessive)

2nd, Learn and practice the SUPERPOWER of “Co-regulation”

Most people are familiar with the term “self-care” and related practices like meditation and exercise. The term “self-regulation” means to calm your nervous system. It is very important to have tools to cope with stressful situations that we have to handle on our own.

“Co-regulation” is also an important life and relationship skill because research has found that this is actually MUCH more effective than self-regulation. Adult attachment research shows that couples and families, with a secure bond who can turn to each other for comfort, are ACTUALLY stronger, braver and more independent because they know they have a secure base to launch from and return to- that someone has their back & heart.

In Stan Tatkin’s PACT (couple therapy) model, he shares his research on co-regulation. He categorizes three different ways to co-regulate your adult partner when they’re in distress- from slow, fast to fastest techniques:

Slow: Lengthy speech (explanations, reasons, excuses) or No responses (verbal or non-verbal)

Fast: Few, but precise words (“Okay”, “I’m sorry”, “You’re right”) or Direct, concise, reparative speech (“I really appreciate what you did”, “I’m so grateful you’re in my life”.)

*Fastest: Nonthreatening physical movement toward partner (proximity), nonthreatening touch (hand, leg, shoulder), facial expressions (empathic, friendly), close eye contact, and empathic vocal tone

3rd, Learn how to make an effective apology and the processes of Acceptance and Genuine Forgiveness from my blogs, What Makes for a Good Apology and How Can I Forgive You?” that summarize Janis Abrahms-Spring’s research and book, How can I forgive you? The courage to forgive and the freedom not to.

4th, If you and your loved one have experienced a rupture and need “CPR” to heal your relationship, take a look at my blogs,

Healing from Attachment Injuries and Other Betrayals

How to Let Go of Resentments; A Step by Step Process

How to Build (& Rebuild) Trust and Heal from Betrayal” (video)

5th, Consider couples or family therapy if you and your loved one would like a “3rd party” as a support to you both in repairing your important relationship.

In love, mistakes are inevitable… There is no perfect soul mate, no flawless lover… We’re all treading on each other’s toes as we are learning to love.

– Sue Johnson, PhD

7.) Choose being in a loving & laughter-filled relationship over being “right”.

“You can be right or you can be married.”

– Harville Hendrix, a pioneer couples therapist

If you ALWAYS have to be right, “win” an argument and get your way, YOU’RE creating unnecessary conflict, relationship cut-offs and eventually will end up LONELY. 

Healthy relationships are mutually reciprocal. Sometimes we acquiesce, other times compromise and when needed, stand our ground and set a LOVING limit or expectation.

If this tip sounds difficult or you’re just not sure how to let go of your belief that you’re always or even usually right, consider your values of humility and humor in others and perhaps yourself.

An example of showing humility in relationships~ Instead of offering your unsolicited opinion, say,

“I have an idea that might be helpful (or thought I would like to share). Would you like to hear it?”

If the other person says, “No thanks”, practice responding, 

“I understand.”

And then respectfully LET IT GO.

Lastly, when possible, find the HUMOR in difficult situations because laughter can increase your relationship bond (as long as you and your significant other are at an emotional place that you can laugh.) Sometimes, being heard and soothed first needs to take place.

Humor is an antidote to arrogance!

When you can acknowledge your imperfections by saying, “I do that too”, it can de-escalate a conflict.

For example, I might ask my husband “Am I’m being a “bulldozer”?” and he sometimes refers to himself as “Dr. Spock”. Consider watching “A Thanksgiving Miracle” (SNL’s family skit with Adele’s music) or the movie, “Stuart Saves His Family”, which has the tagline “You’ll laugh because it’s not your family. You’ll cry because it is.”

In Summary

Many couples and families, who LOVE each other, struggle with effective communication. This is often due to a lack of modeling, teaching and experiencing healthy communication in one’s family of origin.

Adept personal communication and relationship skills are a very different skill set than the ones required to be successful in school and the workplace. I believe that adults could be just as skillful and successful in their personal relationships if they would be willing to put in a little less time and effort at work and more investment in personal and relational growth and nurturing the bond with their loved ones.

In order to strengthen your communication skills and apply these tools successfully in your relationships requires COLLABORATION with YOUR LOVED ONE in learning and practicing new skills (ex. empathy and validation), trial and error, humility, openness to receiving feedback, etc. You can’t just learn this from a book or blog to master it.

I encourage you to be BRAVE by trying some of the tools in this blog and possibly even sharing this blog with your loved one to work together in having hard conversations, so you can experience a deeper, more meaningful relationship. The REWARDS are WORTH IT! 

If you need support in having hard conversations with your loved ones, contact Lana Isaacson, LCSW, CAS, at 720.432.5262, [email protected] to schedule your free consultation, or if you are an established client, you can schedule your session here on my online calendar.