I was recently asked by someone not currently in a relationship, “What can I do to prepare for being in a major relationship?”
The answer? Have hard conversations. Life is full of opportunities for hard conversations–with colleagues, parents, neighbors, even the guy at the dry cleaner who ruined your favorite shirt.
Most of us, at least some of the time, actually avoid hard conversations. Of course. Hard conversations are…well… hard. We feel uncomfortable, at risk of saying the wrong thing or worse yet, not know what to say. We might get hurt; we might end up hurting the other person.
So what I’m suggesting is that you do the opposite of avoiding these conversations, that you actually seek them out. This is definitely a place where you will get better with practice. Also, your sense of dread will decrease as you practice.
Here are a few tips for getting started.
Put the relationship first. Aim for a conversation that leaves both of you feeling good about yourself, each other and the relationship. Hidden benefit: this is actually, also, the best path to good problem solving.
Keep expectations modest. Most hard conversations don’t have to be had all in one talk. Help yourself and the other person by deciding to talk for a short time and then return to the talk a few hours or a few days later. It often helps to agree that you are going to discuss the topic, without making any decisions. Then schedule a next talk for the decision making.
Balance talking with listening. In a good conversation both people are talking some of the time and listening some of the time. Most of us are better at one of these than the other. So if you are more of a listener, remember to make the effort to include your thoughts in the talk. Talkers make sure to stop talking and listen. Keeping the talking and listening balanced helps hard conversations be successful.
Slow things down. The pace of most conversations barely allows us to exchange information, much less sort through all the complex reactions and interactions. Things move fast, often without pauses or silences. And when emotions heighten, we tend to speed up—usually the opposite of what is needed. Keep the pace slow and don’t be afraid to ask for a pause to reflect whenever you need it.
When you do find yourself in a serious relationship, the ability to have hard conversations well will help you to navigate differences and difficulties in a way that actually strengthens each of you and your relationship.
For more about hard conversations and relationships, see my Psychology Today column.