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Tough Conversations With Friends
They may be awkward and uncomfortable, but some tricky conversations are worth having.
Some conversations with friends are really tough to handle. But we need to have them once in a while, even with very close friends.
There are a host of sensitive topics, including but not limited to parenting style (you’re too strict or you’re too permissive) and personal appearance (you’re too fat, too thin, or you should really color your hair).
Like discussions about religion and politics, these touchy conversations about topics so tied to a person’s identity can quickly escalate and become emotional triggers.
Earlier today, I was a guest on The Larry Mantle Show (on LAist, formerly KPCC), the NPR radio affiliate in Los Angeles.
The topic of the segment was “Having Hard Conversations With Friends Is…Well, Hard. But Maybe It Doesn’t Have To Be.”
It got me thinking about the rules of tough conversations with friends.
The benefit of having tough discussions with friends
Sometimes issues crop up between friends that create conflicts or disagreements. Worse than that, something important is not talked about at all, creating a wedge in the friendship.
Undiscussed, it remains the elephant in the room that no one is brave enough to address.
Yet, there is value in having these admittedly awkward discussions. When they are successful, they strengthen friendships and lead to greater intimacy and closeness.
They may also avoid the unnecessary loss of an irreplaceable friendship.
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Rules of the road for broaching an awkward discussion
Like most aspects of friendships, there are no precise rules of the road for having a tough talk.
How to broach these discussions depends on the nature of the relationship between two friends and the problem being discussed.
Yet, there are some practical considerations that you can put to good use:
How to start a tough discussion
Think about the timing
If you’re seething with anger, it’s better to have the talk sooner than later, but with this caveat: Don’t broach sensitive discussions when you’re so angry that you’ll blurt out hurtful or harmful words you can’t take back.
Choose the right setting
Make sure you have enough time to talk in a private setting. Never have sensitive discussions online or at work if your friend is a co-worker.
Frame the discussion
Convey the importance of this friendship to you and explain it is the reason why you want to have this conversation.
Be a good listener and ask questions to help understand the other person’s perspective.
If your friend seems troubled but hasn’t said anything, you may even want to ask whether she wants your advice. Being asked may help open the door to her being more accepting.
Try to understand, not persuade.
Avoid blaming language. Whenever possible, use the “I” language instead of “you.”
You may be ready to have this conversation, but it will probably catch your friend off-guard. (On the radio program, one listener told how she sent a snail mail letter to her friend asking her to get together. It gave the friend time to read it before she had to react.)
Stay calm throughout the conversation, biting your tongue rather than saying something nasty.
Know when it’s time to end the talk
You may come to an agreement or decide that there is no hope of reaching a consensus.
Alternatively, you may realize you need to have multiple discussions.
If a friend’s behavior appears dangerous to herself or others
In cases like this, you need to be very direct and point out your concerns (e.g., I’m concerned that not seeing a doctor will allow your condition to deteriorate; you seem very depressed and I’m afraid you might hurt yourself).
You can only be a friend, not a therapist. If your friend is experiencing a serious problem (e.g., emotional, substance abuse, legal, domestic violence), come to the conversation prepared with information on community resources that she can turn to for help.
Sometimes it’s easier to say nothing
If the differences between you are occasional or limited in scope, you shouldn’t feel guilty about having a tough talk. Remind yourself that it is the best thing for her and the friendship.
Of course, if a friend consistently disappoints you, or you repeatedly aren’t able to resolve disagreements, it may be time to take a break from the friendship.
Having a tough talk can strengthen a friendship.