Stephen King once wrote, “The most important things are the hardest things to say.” He also observed that expressing big thoughts and feelings brings them down to size instead of the monsters they often seem when you keep them in your head.
You might not want to tackle tough conversations, but you’ll feel better once you do. Here are five tips for opening up to a loved one or friend about something difficult.
You have two prep jobs before confessing the difficult news to your loved one or friend. You need to brace yourself mentally for a conversation that might involve tears and raised voices. Additionally, you should put yourself in the other person’s shoes, asking yourself how you would respond in their place. What questions or concerns would you have?
Consulting with a professional therapist can get you in the right mental state to tackle the tough talk. It can help you navigate the process, from deciding who you should tell and how much to reveal to rehearsing what to say. They can also coach you through self-soothing and mindfulness techniques to help you cope if things don’t go the way you had planned.
Preparing for the other person’s concerns and questions depends on the nature of the difficult subject matter. For example, you might collect educational materials about mental illness or addiction, as many people don’t understand much about these complex disorders. If you plan to ask your spouse for a separation, consider issues like your mutual living situation and sharing child care duties and expenses, and how you can solve them to benefit you both.
The unexpected pregnancy announcement that interrupts family Thanksgiving right before Uncle Joe can throw the gravy boat in a pique of politically polarized fury might make for good cinema. However, dropping the proverbial bomb on your partner or friend as they rush out the door or find themselves embroiled in an unrelated crisis is like pouring gasoline on a fire. Neither one of you will respond as your highest or best selves when you’re on stress overload.
Try to choose a time when you both feel relaxed. That said, you shouldn’t postpone the inevitable. Research shows that most people have better critical thinking skills in the morning versus the afternoon when they’re already decision-fatigued.
Caring employers, take note. It may be best to stick to the conventional Friday afternoon at the end-of-the-day wisdom when handling potentially contentious firings. However, it’s best to break the news of mass layoffs early on a Monday morning, when employees have time and energy to think of alternatives, not head directly to happy hour to drown their sorrows.
You might not agree with how the other person responds to your news, but you should not ridicule their response or grow overly defensive with statements like, “It’s not that big of a deal.” Acknowledge their feelings, especially if your announcement caused them emotional pain.
For example, you might say, “I understand why you’d feel betrayed,” if confessing to having feelings for someone other than your spouse. If sharing an unplanned pregnancy, listen to your partner’s financial and practical concerns before insisting you have it all figured out. Unless the other parent is abusive, they deserve to have their fears heard.
The phrase “knowledge is power” is a cliché for a reason — its truth stands the test of time. The right information and education can soften the blow of unwelcome diagnoses and corporate restructuring.
For example, doctors can provide information packets for chronic illness patients, including links to support groups and sliding-scale mental and alternative health clinics if their insurance does not cover treatment. Employers can provide workers they have to lay off with information about state employment agencies and other opportunities.
Those affected can likewise share these tools when approaching their partners and families. For example, they can relay literature about their health condition or discuss taking an alternative position for less pay or risking unemployment.
If possible, reassure the other person that you have their best interests at heart. For example, your spouse might feel understandably upset if you plan to leave home for six months. However, if you need intensive inpatient residential care to get well, it will ultimately benefit your relationship.
Some things nearly always involve hurt feelings, like asking your spouse for a divorce. You might let them know how you plan to fulfill your financial and child care obligations. It won’t soften the blow, but it will prevent adding anxiety on top of grief.
You might not want to tackle life’s more difficult conversations, but it’s sometimes unavoidable. How you handle it won’t necessarily change how the other person reacts to your news, but it can preserve your relationship.
Follow the above tips for opening up to a loved one or friend about something difficult. You’ll rejoice in the relief all the more once you do.
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