Effective communication strategies for challenging conversations

Our social relationships play a huge role in our resilience, with communication being one of the most important relationship ingredients. Very often it is miscommunication or a misunderstanding that is at the heart of the conflict, while good communication strengthens our bonds with others.

While good communication sounds easy, it is actually fairly challenging – particularly when talking about something difficult or highly emotional, or when we are tired or stressed. Most of us don’t like conflict, especially with people that we care about. This means that many of us tend to avoid discussing certain topics altogether, put conversations off until they are absolutely desperate, or avoid saying what we really think or how we feel.

While challenging conversations can be difficult at the best of times, when one of the people involved struggles with their mental health, it can be particularly difficult. Avoiding talking about something challenging will not help it go away, however, and often has a negative impact on our wellbeing as we carry the stress, worry or frustration on our own. The following strategies can assist:


In General:

1. Remember that you may not be right. Your perspective is just that – your perspective. Most of us have very good reasons for behaving the way that we do or for believing what we do. We don’t always agree, but that doesn’t mean that either person is wrong.

2. Avoid assumptions. All too often we assume that we know what another person is doing, thinking or feeling and why they are doing it. In reality, we can’t always know and we are often wrong. Discuss your assumptions and be open to them being corrected.

3. Seek to understand the other person’s perspective. Often we are so busy trying to make the other person understand us and our perspective – we forget to try to understand where they might be coming from.

4. Avoid generalisations – ‘you always’, ‘you never’.

5. Avoid criticizing the person you are talking with. This will just create defensiveness and get in the way of you finding solutions.

6. Focus on one issue at a time. Leave additional issues for a separate conversation.

7. Take time out if the conversation becomes heated or very emotional. You can always come back to it when you have both calmed down.

8. Take responsibility for your own thoughts and feelings.

9. Resist the urge to be right, or point score.

10. Keep your body language calm, open and try and avoid being defensive. Stay seated, and focus on the conversation and finding a solution rather than taking the message personally.

11. Choose your time and place – don’t start a challenging conversation when you are likely to be interrupted, late at night, or when you only have 5 minutes.

12. Prepare for the conversation so that you can be clear about what the issues are, and what you are trying to communicate.

13. Stay focused on finding a resolution rather than becoming stuck on the problem.

To be effective, there are four core communication skills. These include:

• Levelling – Using the analogy of creating a level playing field in communication, levelling means that both parties know all of the relevant information including thoughts, feelings and facts. Don’t expect others to read your mind and check-in that the other person has understood what you are saying.

• Listening – This is about remaining focused on what is being said (and not said) and actively processing what you are hearing., rather than trying to formulate your own response or what you are going to say next.

• Validating – While you don’t need to agree with what someone is saying to you, validating means acknowledging that you have heard their opinion and accept that what they are feeling is true for them.

• ‘I’ statements – When you are communicating your feelings, or trying to establish your limits about what you will and won’t do (or will and won’t accept), it is important to own what you are saying. It can be tempting to put your feelings or limits on to the other person (such as ‘you make me feel…’; ‘you give me no choice…’), but doing so is more likely to provoke defensiveness.

Saying No or Setting Limits :

Most of us don’t like disappointing others, and it is easy to get caught up in unhelpful beliefs that we ‘should’ be able to be all things to all people. Many of us find it easier to say ‘yes’ or go along with requests that we do not really want to do, which significantly increase our own stress and time pressures. This means that saying ‘no’ or setting limits can be a particularly challenging and yet important skill.

Sometimes, simply saying ‘no, I’m not interested/ don’t have time…’ in a clear, polite and firm manner, is enough. If the other person persists, the following can be helpful:
• Acknowledge the other person’s request by repeating it
• Explain your reasons for declining it
• Say ‘no’.

For example: ‘I know you would like me to pay your electricity bill (acknowledgement). However, I paid your bill last month and have already given you a lot of money this week (explanation), so I’m not giving you any more now.’


• Take your time – give yourself time to think through your response and clarify what you want to say before responding. You can always tell someone that you will get back to them, and then take as much time as you need to formulate your response.

• Be specific – while it is challenging to say no, you need to very clearly state what you will and won’t do. Otherwise, the person is more likely to persist.

• Avoid over apologizing – when you apologise multiple times for saying no, you communicate a lack of certainty, and open the door for guilt and ‘making it up to them.’

• Be assertive – You have every right to say ‘no’ and set limits. When doing so, speak clearly and calmly, and during face to face interactions, face them squarely and maintain eye contact.

• Be wary of guilt – It’s not unusual to feel the impulse to do something else for someone after turning them down. Take your time before you offer to do something and take some time to reflect on whether you genuinely want to make this new offer, or whether you are making it out of guilt. Remember, you have every right to say ‘no’.

Rememberhaving challenging conversations can be difficult and may not feel good at the time. They are a part of life, however, and if they remain respectful, open and stay focused on solutions, they can enhance your relationships – whether they are with work colleagues, your boss, your friends, or your partner.