Whether we need to tell our adult children that we’ve started dating, or our best friend confides in us that she has been diagnosed with cancer, we often find ourselves in the midst of a difficult conversation.

Unfortunately, there are no magic words that can make those exchanges go perfectly, but there are several things to keep in mind if you find yourself having to talk about something challenging.

No matter how hard the interaction, it will be easier and more productive if you pay attention to verbal and nonverbal messages, ask questions if you have them, don’t try to solve the problem unless you’re asked to and remember to be empathetic.

 
 

Pay Attention to Verbal and Nonverbal Messages

Whether you are the sender or the receiver in the dialogue, always remember to focus not just on what the other person is saying verbally, but what they are communicating nonverbally.

Researchers say that nonverbal messages tend to be more honest than verbal ones, so if someone is telling you something in a strong and forceful way, but you notice they are shaking or sitting with their arms folded in front of them, it can remind you that they are nervous.

When your son comes and tells you that he and his wife are getting a divorce, listen to what he is saying. This is not an easy message to relay, and no doubt he is sad or angry, so focus on his words, as well as what you think he might be feeling. This will help you to understand his point of view as much as possible.

If it’s you communicating the message, have eye contact with whomever you’re talking to and pay attention to what they say, their gestures and their movements. Any time we are having a tough talk, understanding the full scope of what is being said will make the whole situation easier and clearer. That’s another reason why seeking clarification is good.

Asking Questions Helps with Managing Difficult Conversations

If your best friend is sharing a health concern with you, don’t be afraid to ask questions to gain more information. Don’t interrupt with questions like, “Oh my gosh, what are you going to do?” But, if you don’t understand her terms or the series of events she’s describing, wait until she is finished talking and then tell her you have a couple of questions.

The same is true if you are sharing something serious from your own life. If your friend is silent after you’ve told her that you are moving to be closer to your kids, ask her how this makes her feel. Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions, but remember to do it in a way that is kind and considerate.

Often when someone tells us something onerous, and we know they are suffering, we want to jump to a solution, rather than learning more about the situation. Questions can help; offering solutions doesn’t always.

Don’t Try to Solve the Problem Unless You’re Asked to

If your daughter tells you that your granddaughter is struggling in school, don’t immediately suggest that you will tutor her, or that she should go to a counselor. No one likes to see their kids in pain, but offering to solve the problem, or urging them to take your suggestions can complicate feelings more than soothe them.

Once she has explained the situation, ask what she and her husband are thinking about doing. Ask how their daughter is reacting. It’s perfectly fine to say, “What can I do to help?” but don’t presume you know the answer. Most of us like to be able to solve our own problems, and simply knowing you’re there to help if they need it is usually all that’s necessary.

Also, sometimes we just need to talk about what’s going on and there isn’t an easy solution. If your spouse often complains about a co-worker, continuing to offer suggestions about what he or she should say or do can compound the frustration. Sometimes just listening and asking questions can help the person solve his own problem, or at least get it off his chest.

Remember to Be Empathetic

Regardless of the topic of the conversation or the severity of it, the key to being a good communicator is being empathetic. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and think about what they might be feeling. If you don’t know, ask – as kindly as possible. Do all you can to truly understand how telling or hearing this information might make them feel.

This doesn’t mean their feelings are more important than yours, though. You want to be sure to communicate clearly what you do feel. But knowing what’s happening with them while you’re talking, and even after, will reduce misunderstandings and will emphasize the love and respect you feel for each other.

No one looks forward to managing difficult conversations, but paying attention to the person doing the talking or the listening, being sure you understand what’s being said, offering help only if asked and having empathy for the person with whom you’re talking will all help.

We share our stories with each other so we don’t feel alone and so we can be honest with the important people in our lives. Doing so with intention and compassion can make the relationship even better than it already is.

Do you consider yourself to be a good listener? How do you approach difficult conversations? Please join the conversation.

Ginny McReynolds is a longtime writer. She holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College, and writes about communication, retirement, reinvention, self-concept and creativity in The Washington Post, Curve magazine, and Together.guide. Please visit her blog called Finally Time for This: A Beginner’s Guide to the Second Act of Life.

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