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How to Start an Uncomfortable Relationship Conversation

by Sheri Oz

You are unhappy in your relationship. Whether you are considering ending the relationship or asking for something to change so the relationship improves, beginning the conversation is daunting. You don’t know if you will be able to get your point across. You are afraid of hurting your partner’s feelings. Maybe you’re afraid you are making a big deal out of a small issue and your partner will ridicule you, leaving you feeling humiliated. These fears lower your confidence and hold you back. There are ways to begin uncomfortable conversations that increase their chances of success.

Prepare for the conversation in advance. Coach and trainer Elisa Levy suggests writing a script for what you want to say. The process of writing the script compels you to clarify your goals for the discussion, and this will keep you on track even if your partner raises unrelated issues out of defensiveness or hurt feelings. You will not read your script aloud in the conversation; the act of writing it helps prepare you for this difficult conversation.

Invite your partner to the conversation. In an article on biznik.com, coach Pamela Ziemann recommends carefully selecting the time and place for an uncomfortable conversation to happen. Take an example from the business world and make an appointment for the conversation so that you both set aside enough time to make sure you will be not have to cut the conversation short.

At the outset, focus on some positive aspects of the relationship. Focusing only on the problems can drain the energy out of the conversation. On their blog Your Tango, relationship coaches Susie and Otto Collins recommend keeping in mind the strong and healthy aspects of the relationship even while discussing problems. If you are ending the relationship, saying something positive about it might give your soon-to-be-ex some solace in the long term.

Use the word “and” when bridging between the positive aspects of the relationship and the issue you want to discuss. When you say “but” after a positive statement, your partner will immediately prepare for the worst. The White Oak Counseling website suggests that “but” overemphasizes the idea following the “but,” whereas “and” gives equal weight to both parts of your statement. Especially if you are not ending the relationship, using “and” instead of “but” will help your partner focus on what you are saying rather than on preparing a defense.

State the problem in terms of your own personal needs, not your partner’s drawbacks. Blaming will put your partner on the defensive and might turn the uncomfortable conversation into a fight. A University of Florida article in a marriage preparation series suggests that using “I” statements invites your partner to empathize and desire to contribute to solving the problem rather than being preoccupied with avoiding blame.

Listen to your partner. You have started the conversation; now it’s your turn to listen.

About the Author

With an Master of Science in marital and family therapy, Sheri Oz ran a private clinical practice for almost 30 years. Based on her clinical work, she has published a book and many professional articles and book chapters. She has also traveled extensively around the world and has volunteered in her field in China and South Sudan.

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