How to have hard convos with your family

Andrea Brunetti August 17, 2022

Communication with loved ones can be tense and stressful. Here’s how to keep things productive.

Our family is usually the people who have known us the longest. This means that there will inevitably be times where difficult conversations will have to take place with them. These can vary from communicating how you feel about them leaving the kitchen messy, to more complex topics like sexuality, boundaries, divorce and the list goes on. 

In preparation for approaching your family with a conversation that feels difficult for you to have, I offer you some helpful tips to make this process a little easier, and for you to feel more grounded in advance.

  1. What is your intention with the conversation?

 I have to admit this question is my personal favorite and my go-to for every conversation; easy or difficult. Why? Because it allows you to reflect on your real purpose behind your words, or the topic you are choosing to bring about. Is it coming from a place of hurt and resentment? Is your intention to get recognition? Is it to hurt them back? Is your intention to feel heard and acknowledged? Understanding what is truly moving you to engage in conversations allows you to work on the issue on your own first (with a therapist, for example), so that you are then able to communicate openly and honestly with the other without being on autopilot, or unaware of what is really motivating you.

  1. Learn to observe yourself:

This one would be step 2 for the tip mentioned above. Observing yourself as you speak, and listening to another person allows you to recognize when you are being triggered. Being triggered at times can lead you to feel that you have to defend yourself from the perceived “attack” and this leads to arguments easily as emotions are involved and objectivity is lost. As you practice self awareness (I know, this is not easy!), you will become more of a witness, observing your own reactions instead of being driven by them. This allows you to either take a deep breath, a moment to feel the emotion briefly, let it go, and come back to the conversation with objectivity. Or, to take a break from the conversation for as long as you need to in order to “cool down.”

  1. Use I statements!

Saying “I feel unseen when I try to tell you about my day, and you are on your phone” is different from saying “You are always on your phone! You never pay attention to me!” The latter is using “you language,” which again is more likely to trigger the other person as they are feeling attacked. Using “I statements” informs the other person of how their ACTIONS are making you feel. Hence, it invites them to revisit their actions and work on those instead of feeling like there is something wrong with them. 

  1. Validate, and speak your truth.

You can be both validating of the other person’s experience and at the same time hold space for your own. One does not need to exclude the other (because duality!). You can use words like “I understand why you might feel this way” or simply “I hear you” and then proceed to share about what is going on for you. Remember that it is not necessarily about convincing the other to have your same opinion/perspective, it is about understanding each other.

  1. Choose a time and setting wisely.

Knowing when and where to have difficult conversations can be key in this process. You probably know your family best, but at times it helps to have these types of conversations when everyone involved is feeling calm, and not stressed or irritable. 

  1. Set boundaries

Boundary setting can be a hard conversation in-and-of-itself. But being able to stop the conversation when it is feeling unsafe or overwhelming for you to sustain it can help you tremendously. Recognizing your limits and honoring them allows you to remain grounded. This in turn leads you to share your feelings, thoughts and experience without the need to feel like you have to defend yourself.

  1. Identify one source of support and/or coping strategies for afterwards.

Regardless of whether or not the outcome was what you desired it to be, you might feel a little drained and with the need to decompress and recharge. Have at least one person whom you know will be able to provide you with emotional support afterwards. You do not need to feel alone just because you are not being understood and validated or seen by your family. 

Engaging in activities that you know soothe you might also be a good way to release the emotions that came up during the conversation. Going for a walk, to the gym or a yoga class, journaling, crying, spending time in nature or cooking something good for the soul could help you self-regulate and process what just happened.

Having hard conversations with your family can be a difficult process that might even lead you to choose not to have them at all, and that is OKAY. On the other hand, it could also lead to you and your family feeling more connected with each other. Remember, you always have a choice on what you say, on if you want to say it at all, and on how you respond to someone’s actions and comments.

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