How to Have Hard Conversations & Improve Communication

December 31, 2020

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Being able to have tough conversations and to communicate well is a skill that will carry you through life. It’s the key ingredient to cultivating strong connections with others, and is also no small feat. We’re talking about managing delicate emotions and feeling, acknowledging someone else’s experience in the world while also clearly stating our needs and boundaries – whew! Sounds stressful just talking about it.

But this is a skill you can learn and hone, and learning how to navigate these difficult moments is absolutely worth it.

Listen up for specific tools that will change how you communicate and connect with others, or scroll down to read the full transcription of today’s episode!


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How to Have Hard Conversations

You’re listening to Episode 241 of the room to grow podcast. I’m Emily Gough, a human connection coach, speaker and mental health advocate with an insatiable sense of curiosity and adventure, always asking more questions and using the power of stories to teach, learn and grow. It’s about allowing for room to grow. And this podcast focuses on three main pillars: human connection, personal growth and freedom. We cover topics like relationships, and cultivating genuine supportive connections with ourselves and others, speaking your truth, shattering personal barriers, radical self acceptance, and courageously leaning into your skill sets. Whether it’s a solo episode, or bringing on highly curated guests with incredible stories, experiences and expertise to share, we’re leaning in and taking the entire idea of growth to the next level, all while still covering the uncomfortable topics that many of us like to avoid, there’s always more room to grow. Let’s do this.

Hey, Hey, welcome back to the Room to Grow podcast, Emily here. And today we’re going to be talking about how to have hard conversations. This is a tough one to tackle. This is one that I have made many, many mistakes with over the years to very poor results. So this is definitely a practice that has been honed. And I would like to think that I’ve improved, I have been told that I have improved significantly. So I’m hoping to share some of the wisdom that I’ve picked up along the way with you about how to massively improve your communication. Because this is going to have a bigger impact on your relationships in your life than anything else. The way that we communicate with others is the only real way to let other people know how we’re feeling to share vulnerably to connect on a deeper level, communication is crucial, it is absolutely crucial. And this is a skill that will serve you for life. So hopefully you can take some of the things that I teach today, and carry that into your everyday interactions as well. 

This is also one of the things that we’re going to be going into really deeply in the Room to Grow Mastermind. So the Room to Grow Mastermind is launching on January 18 of 2020. And it’s a small intimate group that is based around what we teach and what I teach on this podcast, the three pillars of connection, personal growth and freedom. And communication is a significant part of the entire curriculum. Because it is such an important part of creating better connections and building relationships with people that matter that are meaningful, and that make us feel seen, heard and understood. And this is a skill, do not mistake me, this is absolutely a skill. There’s a reason why so many of us struggle with communication. And there’s always more to learn, by the way, there’s always more to learn and ways to continuously improve your communication. But think about how your relationships in your life could look so different. If you could take your communication from a C or D level to at least a B plus or an A minus, that would shift things for you in such a significant way. So make sure to go check out the Room to Grow Mastermind. And I’m also happy to hop on the phone with you. If you have any questions if you want to see if it’s a good fit, I actually prefer that because I want to really curate this group a lot. And I want to make sure that everybody is a really good fit for it, that I am a good fit for you. So make sure to check out the links in the show notes and all the information will be over there. Or you can also jump over to

Okay, so let’s talk about this, how to have hard conversations. So first and foremost, we have to acknowledge the other person’s experience. And what I mean by that is to simply you can you can quite literally state out loud that you recognize that the other person has a different point of view, that they have their own history, their own background, their own life experiences that have shaped them and molded their beliefs and their worldview in a way that is going to be different from yours. That’s just factual. That’s just the way it is, no two human beings are identical. When it comes to our emotions, you know, well being our thoughts, all of those things, those are always going to be different. So right off the bat, we want to acknowledge that the other person is probably going to have a slightly different point of view than we will. And it doesn’t mean that we have to agree it doesn’t mean that we have to disagree. It’s just acknowledging that experience, okay. Additionally, when it comes to having hard conversations, we really want to come from a place of genuine curiosity and wanting to have a greater understanding of the other person’s side. There’s no point in acknowledging the other person’s experience if you don’t actually want to learn more about why they feel the way that they do. And I’m going to give you some more specific examples within this as well about actual, like phrases that you can use to speak to people as well. But we have to be, we have to be genuine about it because I say this time and time and time and time again, people can sense when we’re being genuine. We can sense that about other people, you can tell when somebody is just communicating with you or speaking to you in a way that is very surface level, like they don’t actually really give that much of a shit. They’re just asking because they think that they should, or they’re just talking to you, because they feel like they have to, we can sense that. And we have to come at this from a place of genuine curiosity and understanding or at least a, you know, a genuine want of understanding, in order for this to be a good experience for everyone all around. 

Okay, and we can’t go in on the defensive either. And that can be so much easier said than done, you guys. So much easier said than done. We can go and trails blazing, and we’re like, pissed off. And I’m right and you’re wrong, it is very difficult to control that sometimes. And again, this is something that of course, there’s still times where I struggle with that. But I’ve definitely learned to slow my reaction, a huge amount. I actually had an incredible therapist on the podcast a year or two ago, named Tori Alieto, She’s incredible. And we were talking about practicing the pause. And that pause can be really, really significant to the health of your relationships. So I’ll reference that episode in the show notes so that you can go check it out. Because just taking even a moment for a deep breath, like taking that, just that breather for a moment, making yourself count to five, you know, Mel Robbins talks about that, she uses the five second rule and a little bit different context. But there are all kinds of ways we can do this to just sort of slow ourselves down, so that we don’t go in quite so defensively. And additionally, if you’re in a really, really angry headspace, you might not want to have the conversation immediately. Either that might be a sign that you need to take a walk, call friends, you need to calm yourself a little bit, get a grasp on the more rational side, before you go in and have a conversation that could potentially be really damaging to the relationship that you will regret later.

One of my favorite tools to use, I got this from Brené Brown, is that when you are having these types of conversations, communicate with the other person by letting them know what your experiences are. So we talked about how we want to acknowledge the other person’s experience. That’s great. And what we also want to make clear is that we feel a certain way we are, you know, upset or distressed or bothered somehow by the other person’s actions, because of the story that we are telling ourselves. Because that’s true. We haven’t had the conversation yet, we haven’t taken the time yet necessarily to fully understand the other person’s point of view. So when we are starting this conversation, we can let them know, okay, this isn’t necessarily true. This isn’t necessarily factual. But the story that I’m telling myself in my head is blank. And that’s going to soften things a lot. Because then you’re not just coming in attacking someone, you’re letting them know, Hey, this thing that happened, or this thing that that went down, or that you did or something, something that was sad, or, or something like that. The story that I’m telling myself is, you know, whatever that is, let’s say your partner snaps at you, you can say, hey, the story I’m telling myself right now is that you’re really pissed off with me. And for something that I did, and your partner might actually I’ve had this happen, the partner might look up and be surprised and go, you said something I didn’t even notice. Sometimes they did notice, but they didn’t actually intend for, you know, their tone to come across that way or something like that. And they were thinking about something else, and it actually had nothing to do with you. Not that that’s excusing poor behavior, but that puts a different spin on it. Okay, so I love that toolbar by Brené Brown. I use that a lot in it’s the story I’m telling myself is blank. 

The other thing is, before we even start some of these conversations, we also want to ask if the other person can hold space for us right now, because it might not be a good time. Sometimes if there’s a heavy question, one that we need to have with somebody, but the other person is already overwhelmed, they might be exhausted and hungry. It depends on how well you know the person, if this is somebody closer to you do they have a time of day that they would be more receptive than others, like some people I know are not terribly receptive first thing in the morning, you know, like before their coffee or something like that. And it could be better to speak to them later in the day. Other people might be the complete opposite, where they’re exhausted by the end of the day, and they’re, you know, bright eyed and bushy tailed first thing in the morning, and that’s a better time to speak to them, this is going to vary, okay. But  we also really want to make sure that we’re going into the conversation respectfully, in case somebody just doesn’t actually have the mental capacity to have this conversation right now, it doesn’t mean that they won’t have the conversation with you. It just might mean they can’t have it right, this second, that’s a really helpful, powerful tool that I use in nearly all my relationships, whenever I can. With one of my best friends in particular, you know, if I have something heavy to discuss, even if it’s not necessarily anything to do with her, I just have something heavy to talk about. I will send her an audio message and go, hey, I’ve got this heavy thing to talk about. Are you okay with holding space? Or, you know, if it’s a live conversation, obviously, then then that’s better. But I will do that. And if it’s an audio message form, I’ll say, you know, are you okay to hold space? And I will either wait for her to respond yes or no. Or I’ll just say, Okay, I’m going to let this out in my next audio message, I’m just warning you so that if you don’t have the mental capacity, don’t listen to it right now until you’re ready. That has been a complete game changer. complete game changer, because we’ve all had those moments where we just were already overwhelmed. And then somebody else comes to us with a problem or they’re mad at us or something. We’re like, Oh, my God, like I can’t right now. So that’s a really, really helpful tool that will serve you in all of your relationships, for sure.

Showing kindness. I know that this might seem both obvious, and sometimes difficult to do, again, if we’re really upset and riled up and hurting about something. But showing kindness is never a bad choice. Never a bad choice. And sometimes, especially if we’re having a hard conversation, you know,  we need to show kindness, while also still being clear on our boundaries, too. And listen, some compromise might be necessary here, hard conversations, the result of hard conversations, the desired result is not for you to be right. The result of a hard conversation, the desired result is to have a better understanding and a deeper connection, at the end of it, or depending on how it goes, to make your boundaries and your needs very clear. And to determine if that relationship is going to continue to survive, thrive, do well, depending on how the other person is feeling. So yeah, we might not always get exactly what we want out of our conversation. But trusting in the process is part of it, I’m going to get into more of that a little bit as well. But some of the other issues here can be using things like you know, statements like you always blank, or you never blank, we’ve all had that, right? Like, you never pay attention to me, You never listen to me. You always show up late, we’ve all had those types of conversations, or either where we have been the one saying those things, or other people have been the one saying that to us. It doesn’t feel good, it does not feel good to be on the receiving end of that. And that is then going to trigger that defensiveness. In, in any of us. That’s a normal natural human reaction to those types of blanket generalized statements. So instead, try statements like I feel blank, or I need blank. Because then rather than projecting something onto the other person, you’re simply stating your feelings, your needs. And that is completely valid without stereotyping the other person or generalizing or, you know, again, then if somebody makes a statement like that to us about like you always do this or you never do that. Our first thought, our first natural thought is going to be to think of the one exact time where we didn’t do the thing that we’re being accused of. And then that’s how we’ll respond. That’s how defensiveness comes out. Right? So instead, if we make it a little bit more about ourselves, to simply translate our experience in the world, to the other person, that’s going to change the entire tone of the conversation.

We also need to release the, again, easier said than done. I fully acknowledge that all these things are easier said than done. We also need to release the judgment and the types of statements that imply judgment. So those are one example about you know, the always or the you never statements. And again, it’s this judgment piece, this is where we’re attaching our own stories before we’ve ever even given the other person a chance to explain their point of view. So an example here would be if we say something like, I don’t understand why blank. Can we change that to something along the lines of can you help me understand blank? Do you hear the difference in that, that’s a very, very different vibe. Because then we’re coming from that place of genuine curiosity instead. And that is going to be so much more well received than that more accusatory, judgment heavy statement. So can you help me understand blank, that’s going to have a really, really different effect on the conversation, and active listening as part of this as well. So if somebody then explains their point of view, you have, you know, asked for better understanding the other person has explained their side of things, then part of active listening is demonstrating to the other person that we have heard what they have said, and then we want to make sure that we have translated it the right way. Because again, people can speak to us and speak words that we intellectually understand. But in our heads, we are still taking those words or statements and attaching our own emotions to it. And creating stories, right? We’re whipping up stories in our heads about what it is that they’re saying, if they’re saying it in, you know, a way that that we wouldn’t necessarily say it, that can just be because they’re different human than you, it doesn’t mean that they’re being an asshole. But this is how this communication piece can go awry really quickly, if we don’t get super clear. So in terms of the act of listening, you know, somebody explains their side of things. And then you’re listening. And then you can say, hey, okay, let me make sure I understand. This is what I’m hearing you say? And then explain it. And then ask them did I get that, right? That’s also going to make the other person feel heard and understood. Because even if you didn’t get it exactly right, then it gives the other person an opportunity to correct you and to again, build a better understanding and connection there. And that’s going to deepen that relationship with the other person.

Listen, letting someone know how something made you feel is never a bad thing. It’s never a bad thing. And this is why a lot of us get tripped up and have hard conversations in the first place. Because there’s a lot of fear here is a huge amount of fear. But letting someone know how something made you feel is never a bad thing. It’s totally valid. And if things fall apart, in that relationship, because of that conversation, and because of letting somebody know how you made them feel, then that relationship may not have been worth hanging on to in the first place. Hard as that may be to accept. We’ve all had that experience where you know, a connection dissipated or relationship fell apart. And it’s heartbreaking in that moment. And I’m not even necessarily just talking about romantic relationships, like it can be friendships, it can be with family members, like there’s so many different examples of this. It can be so hard in that moment. But looking back, it, you may have realized that that relationship or connection may not have been the best thing for you anyway. But it’s really tough. It’s really, really tough. 

And we want to be open to feedback when we’re having these types of conversations as well. Because trust me, this is the only way I have learned how to be even a little bit better at hard conversations is by getting some really tough feedback that I didn’t want to hear. I did not want to hear it. There were times when I used to have a fiery hair trigger temper, I will end up doing a whole episode on this when I was much younger, like late teens, early 20s. And the only reason why I was able to shift that. Well, there were a few different reasons. One was that I started to really see the effect that my temper had on my closest relationships and the people around me, it was very damaging, very, very damaging. Additionally, I had a couple people close to me that you know if I went off about something, and then I would go storming off, you know, enraged and like tears pouring down my face. And I would expect the person to follow me and comfort me. And it got to the point where that was no longer happening. I was being left to just sulk it out on my own. I’m like, What is this bullshit? What do you mean? You aren’t here to comfort me? I’m right? You’re wrong. It’s my way or the highway. Yeah, but that went over real well, you guys real well. So when I say I’ve learned how to have hard conversations, it has definitely been through a lot of trial and error that is for sure. But it was only because I got feedback that I wasn’t particularly open to hearing. But I got it anyway. And I had to sit with that. And let it marinate. And it took multiple conversations in very similar veins before I really started to change how I was showing up. Not even necessarily for the sake of the other people in my life, but for my own sake, because I didn’t want to feel that way anymore. I just didn’t want to feel that way. And I also needed to make sure that my needs were being met, and have a greater understanding of the other person’s point of view.

 So sometimes we need to actually ask, you know, we’re having these types of conversations, ask if there’s anything you can be doing differently, and be prepared for a genuine response. But don’t necessarily see it as a bad thing. If somebody gives you negative feedback, it’s hard to hear, it’s really fucking hard to hear. But if you can be open to it, and if it’s from a source that you love, and trust and respect, that can be a really powerful shift for you guys. And for all of us. I mean, for any of us. And it can create these really pivotal moments where we start to show up very differently in these types of hard conversations. I mean, throughout all of this, you know, often when we’re having these tough conversations, it can be about something that, you know, we are heard about, we’re distressed about all of these things, which can kind of be rooted in feeling heavy, like I don’t even want to say negative because emotions are neutral, there isn’t really any positive or negative. It’s just the stories. It’s the stories that we attach to emotions that make them more positive or negative, so called. So it’s not that the emotions are neutral. But sometimes we also need to let people know what they’ve done right. As opposed to just what they’ve done wrong. Because when we’re having these types of conversations, we’re often letting people know, hey, I think you did something wrong. What it often boils down to is, Hey, I think you did something wrong, because I’m hurting, because you said this, or because you did this, right. Sometimes we also need to let people know what they’ve done, right. Not just what they’ve done wrong. You know, just statements like I really appreciate. And again, this has to be genuine, do not blow smoke up people’s ass has to be genuine, you can only say this, if you actually mean it. Let people know, I really appreciate it when you blank. Or I felt seen and understood when you did blank for me. That can really change the entire tone of even the most difficult conversation. Because you’re letting your acknowledging something about the other person that they’ve done really well. Or that they have made you feel great in a particular way. And that can change the entire tone completely.

And I’ve had to have more tough conversations than usual in the past few months, even past couple years, but especially the past few months. And I’d like to think that Yeah, I’m getting a little better at navigating them sometimes. Although that doesn’t mean that they’re not still incredibly difficult to have sometimes. But there is still going to be some fear. And that’s very normal, especially for anyone who has a fear of abandonment or rejection, which most of us do as humans on some core level. Most of us do have those types of fears, those innate fears. But ultimately, we have to go into these conversations understanding that we can’t control the reaction of the other person. You can only control how you show up how you behave and how you respond. This is one I really like to use because I really mean it when I say it. I like to remind the person that we’re on the same team, the person that you’re talking to let them know that you’re on the same team assuming that that’s true. Okay, if you’re talking to your mortal enemy it might be different, but if you’re talking to your partner or you know, a close friend or a loved one, let them know that you’re on the same team. And that again, is going to offer that little bit of reassurance and just softening things that little bit that can again change the tone of the conversation.

The other thing, and this is really hard, is to be prepared for not necessarily getting a quick resolution to this. Sometimes the other person might need to sit with this information, especially if it was unexpected. So patience is sometimes required with hard conversations, not one of my greatest virtues I can tell you. So that part can be extra difficult for somebody like me who is very impatient sometimes. But it can be a really necessary part of it, you can’t really rush this process, either.

So I hope that this has given you some tools to use when it comes to having hard conversations. And again, this is one of many areas that we’re going to be going into in the Room to Grow Mastermind. So the mastermind is eight weeks long, we’re beginning on January 18, it’s gonna be weekly group coaching calls with this really small intimate group. Plus there is also a VIP option if you want additional private support from me throughout the week, the eight weeks as well as the group coaching calls and stuff too. But one of the biggest reasons why I started this mastermind was to really go deeper into everything that we are doing on this podcast, everything that I teach on this podcast, because podcast episodes will only get us so far. And I’ve just felt so deeply pulled to go deeper with this work. And, honestly, we get to choose our heart. You get to choose your heart, you get to choose to do hard things. And my friend Jade Teta, who’s been on the podcast a couple different times, he likes to say easy is earned. And easy is earned by doing the hard things upfront. And a lot of times, we have to do this really hard, tough work in order to get to the gold underneath. And sometimes navigating the pain of staying the same and balancing that against how hard and uncomfortable changing uncertainty can be, is really difficult, but how it’s so necessary to growth. And leaning into these hard conversations, to cultivate deeper connections with yourself and with loved ones, your life will not magically improve or get better by itself, it’s going to require you to make some big decisions and to trust yourself enough to figure it out along the way, and to be able to show up confidently as well. And something like that, the skills that I have picked up in terms of having hard conversations is something that I will forever be learning how to do better. It’s powerful. It’s really, really powerful. And I spent most of my life feeling very misunderstood and unseen and unheard. And, you know, I felt trapped in my corporate job and in a relationship that I thought was the best I could do. And I was just kind of, in the back of my head wondering sometimes like is this all there is. And it wasn’t until I started to have a lot more really hard conversations, not only with others, but with myself, getting really honest with myself about some scary things that I didn’t really want to face that I started to see some big shifts. And I want that for you too. Because easy is earned. And it’s going to require a lot of hard work to get there. But it’s so worth it. So that’s what we’re going to be going into in the room to grow mastermind as well. So check out all the details in the show notes. We start January 18. And let me know if you have any questions. If this resonated with you if this episode helped you in any way, if it if you start to use some of these tools and some conversations you need to have, and they go this conversations go a lot differently than they have in the past. Let me know I would love love. Love to hear that from you. I’m over @emilygoughcoach on Instagram. Just tag me, shoot me a DM, I’d love to say hi. And thank you so much for listening. We’ll be back soon!

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