How to Talk About Tough Stuff….

One of my favorite expressions is; “It’s not what you say but it’s how you say it.” It also has a lot to do with when you say it, where you say it, and to who you say it. Communication seems to be a dying art and difficulties with communication will always cause problems in relationships.  At work, at home, or out with friends, eventually you are going to have to talk about something uncomfortable.  In any kind of relationship, you will have conflict that you are going to have to discuss.  If you master the art of communication, you will see how your relationships will improve and how much calmer and happier you will feel.

Communicating tough stuff with little kids:

Children are smarter than you think and they can understand more than you realize. Always tell kids the truth but use language and examples that are appropriate for them. Do not lie to them to soften the blow! I work with kids and they tend to remember the times adults lied to them trying to protect them; in my experience, children usually hold this against adults and become angry when they discover the truth.  Trust is important in any relationship and is especially important in an adult/child relationship. If you do not know an answer, tell the child that you do not know it. Be patient and calm when you talk to kids. If they ask the same question repeatedly, answer that question patiently repeatedly.  Try not to tell them tough news before school or before things they are excited about like sporting events or dance class. If you really don’t know what to say about a tough subject there are many books you can buy to talk to kids about topics like divorce, adoptions, moving, and grief.  Whatever feelings your child expresses, make sure you honor them by communicating: “I know you are sad”, “I am sorry you are upset”, “I can see that you are angry”, etc.

Here is an example; Dad was arrested and has to go to jail for three months so what do you tell Johnny who is five?

Don’t Say…… “Daddy is doing a special job far away and is so excited to be working. He loves you very much and will call you every day.”

Do Say….. “Daddy made a bad choice and has a consequence because of that mistake so a judge decided he has a punishment away for three months. We all make bad choices but he loves you very much and will call you when he can.”

Communicating tough stuff with teenagers:

Teenagers can be a tricky group for adults to talk to and most of them have their own language, which is also hard to follow. Teenagers are looking for independence and want freedom to make their own choices. It is hard to give them advice because sometimes they just do not want a family member to tell them what to do, AGAIN. One way you can get around this is by asking your teenager if you can give them a suggestion, then they have some control because they are deciding to accept or not accept you giving that suggestion. You may also try asking them what their opinion is on a subject or how they feel about something. This makes them feel valued and like they have some control. Then listen to them!  Do not interrupt, look them in the eye, and really listen.  You are the adult and get to make the final decisions but your approach and making your teenager feel heard and valued will go a long way in a conversation. Timing with teenagers is key; if they seem stressed, irritable, or sad wait for a calm moment to talk. Do not get into a screaming match with a teenager ever. It is okay to call your teenager out on bad behavior but do not shame them with your words. Things will turn dramatic quickly and nothing will get accomplished!

Here is an example; your 16-year-old daughter always goes to the movies with her friends on Saturday nights but her grandmother is very sick and you want the family to visit her. What can you say to her?

Don’t Say……. Your grandmother is sick so do not think you are going out with friends on Saturday night; you are going to be considerate and visit her with us because it is the right thing to do.

Do Say….. Hey, can I give you a suggestion? Your grandmother is sick and we are going to visit her Saturday night; I think it would be special for Grandma if you skip hanging out with friends and go visit with us, it would mean a lot to me too. How would you feel about that?

Communicating tough stuff in romantic relationships:

All couples fight and argue; that is normal. You will disagree but how you disagree is important. Name-calling, screaming, and eye rolling should not be parts of disagreements. Try using “I statements” because then you are taking responsibility for your feelings and not blaming your partner; I feel…. I want….I like…. I need…etc.  If your partner is not a morning person, do not touch on a heavy topic at 6 a.m.  Instead of focusing on the negative, try to turn something negative into a positive request.  Saying the traits that your partner has that you like and would like to see more of will be better received than complaining about what they do not do or do not have. Sometimes in communication, less can be more. Speak your mind once clearly and directly then see what happens. Do not turn a 5-minute conversation into a 5-hour fight. Do not nag; say what you got to say, then walk away! The secret is to do this calmly and in a caring way. Do not use the silent treatment or withhold communication to punish or teach your partner a lesson. If you see change or improvement, make sure you tell your partner that you notice.  Make sure you say “thank you” and “please” to your partner for little things; this should be done multiple times a day. Everyone likes to feel appreciated, valued, and respected so make sure your words and tone always convey that.

Here is an example; you are annoyed that your husband is never around on the weekends and is always with his friends.

Don’t say….. I hate how you always go fishing with your friends and you never make any time for me. You are such a selfish jerk and I feel alone in this relationship.

Do say…. I really feel loved when you make time for me, I had such a great time last month when you took me out for dinner, when can we do that again?

Communicating tough stuff at work:

Work is often one of those environments where you have to stand up for yourself. So what do you do if you need to talk to your boss or co-worker about something that you feel is unfair or you do not like? Be calm, direct, and assertive. Do not compare your situation to one with another coworker. Make an appointment to talk about your concern and do it face to face. A lot can be misinterpreted through E-mail or text. Practice what you want to say before you say it. Say it aloud in the mirror, how does it sound? You can start the conversation by asking for clarification on a policy or for more information about the expectations for you and then say what you need to say.  Being an active listener is also a communication skill. You never want to make someone at work feel attacked and sometimes it is better to give your boss or a coworker the opportunity to talk first so you can listen and get all the facts and then you respond. You always want to communicate with respect to everyone but especially at work pay close attention to your tone, language, and vocabulary.

Here is an example; a coworker tells you how she is off next week on the same day you wanted off even though she told you she did not follow company procedures to ask for the vacation day. You want to talk to your boss about this. What can you say?

Don’t Say…….. “Why did you approve Shelly’s vacation day next week and deny my request when I put the request in two weeks ago? That seems to me like you are playing favorites and that is what a lousy boss does.”

Do Say….. “Thank you for meeting with me, can you provide me with some information about the vacation day policy? I’m not sure why my request that I put in two weeks ago was denied. Can you please explain that to me?

Overall  Communication Tips:

  • Practice before you talk: write it down, say it aloud, run it by a friend
  • Stay calm: Do not yell, cry, or laugh when you are talking about serious stuff, if your emotions are getting the best of you, tell your listener you are struggling and need to take a break
  • Don’t email or text tough stuff; ask when you can talk face to face
  • Don’t do all the talking; conversations are two way streets and you need to listen as much as you talk
  • Sarcasm has no place in serious conversations and use humor wisely
  • Pay attention to your tone, speed, vocabulary and volume of your voice
  • Find a good time to talk, if someone already is having a bad day wait for a  better moment
  • Give your listener your undivided attention; turn the TV off, put your phone away and go someplace private
  • Be honest and direct; your listener may not like the message but you still have to say what you need to say
  • Don’t lie or sugarcoat the truth
  • Take responsibility for your actions and avoid blaming and comparing
  • Respect pauses and silence; sometimes your message needs to be processed. Give your listener an opportunity to think and reply
  • Follow up- This should be brief. Whether the conversation went well or not, follow up and thank your listener for their time, ask them if they have any questions or let them know how you felt after talking

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