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Is It Time to Stop Avoiding and Time to Talk?

Apr. 28, 2019 Psychology Today

Many people avoid difficult conversations with loved ones. Admittedly, it’s sometimes a good idea to just let things go. Some conflicts are trivial and relationships require compromise and tolerance. However, if there’s an “issue” coming between you and your partner despite your attempts to let it go, and the relationship is worth preserving, it’s probably worth confronting. The trick is to use constructive confrontation skills so that facing your conflict deepens, enriches, and saves your relationship rather than making things worse. Here are my suggestions for enhancing your constructive confrontation skills.

1. Be thoughtful rather than impulsive; plan ahead. Effective confrontations don’t involve uncensored expressions of thoughts and feelings. In fact, as psychologist Harriet Lerner (1989) once said, planning and tact are what make truth-telling, and truth-hearing, possible in difficult situations and about the toughest subjects. I recommend writing down and rehearsing your words and tone of voice. Also, think about the best time and place. Sometimes it’s best to set up a time with the other person and it’s always best to wait until you can talk about the issue without aggression and reactivity.

2. Start by affirming the importance of the relationship, then define the conflict in a small and specific way and present it as a mutual problem to be solved. Don’t drag out everything that has ever bothered you about the person or the relationship. That’s called “kitchen sinking” (as in everything but the kitchen sink) and it overwhelms the person and causes defensiveness.

3. Think about your contribution to the conflict and take your share of responsibility for it. If you cop to your share of the problem, the other person is more likely to reciprocate by taking theirs (I swear, it’s almost magical!). For hints, think about your behavior from their point of view, and at the very least take responsibility if you didn’t let them know something was an issue for you, or if you tried to communicate your concern passively, or passive-aggressively.

4. Minimize the likelihood of defensiveness. Frame the problem in terms of issues and actions, not faulty personality traits. Think about what kind of person they like to see themselves as and make sure that you don’t attack it. Avoid shaming and blaming them even if you think they deserve it (it will make them defensive and prevent constructive dialogue). Use “I” statements rather than blaming “you” statements. “I” statements begin with “I am/I feel/I hear/I think” and so on (Satir, et al., 1991).

5. Look for integrative solutions. The point is not to get your way but to find solutions that satisfy the interests of both people (win-win solutions!). Explain what you want and why but ask the other person what things look like from their perspective and what they want and why.  The goal is mutual empathyand coming up with solutions that satisfy the major concerns of both of you. Often we focus too much on our positions and not enough on why we hold these positions. Once we identify the “whys” we can often generate more creative solutions.

If you’re unsure what these things look like in practice, I’ll illustrate with the experience of a woman that read my blog “The Trouble With Houseguests.” She reached out asking how to confront her daughter who was a terrible houseguest that left her feeling angry and exhausted. Imagine if she said this:

“I need to talk to you about your visit. You barely lifted a finger to help and by the time you left, I was exhausted. It reminded me of when you were a teenager and treated me like a maid. The next time you come I expect you to pitch in or I’d rather you stay elsewhere.” 

In contrast, imagine the reaction she’d get with this constructive approach to confrontation: 

“You know I love you and I always will. Our relationship is so important to me and that’s why I feel the need to talk to you. I know I was grumpy when you visited and I haven’t called in a while. I feel I owe you an explanation and an opportunity to work things out together, so here it is. 

I loved seeing you and the kids but I’m getting older. The workload was too much and it meant I didn’t get to spend as much quality time with you all as I wanted and I was exhausted by the time you left. I know you needed a vacation and TLC and as your mom, I wanted to give it to you so I didn’t say anything. But then I felt hurt and resentful that you left it all to me and your Dad. I know that’s not fair. I’m hoping we can come up with a plan to share the cooking, laundry, and dishes next time so that you stay with us you can still get a break, and I can enjoy your visit and the family gatherings. What do you think?  What can we do differently next time?”  

Confronting relationship issues is scary and carries the risk of a fight. But avoiding issues can take a toll on our relationships and lead to reduced relationship satisfaction and estrangement. If you can’t let it go, and it’s harming your important relationship, you stand to gain more than you stand to lose with a constructive confrontation.

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