Difficult Conversations Series Part III (Friends)—Simple Steps to Calmly Assert & Express Yourself When Engaging in Stressful Conversations in Order To Avoid Unhealthy Distrust, Guilt, or Blame

How to Handle Talking About the Tough Stuff With Friends You Care About

As satisfying and invigorating as friendships might be, there can be some equally difficult and awkward moments that can cause strife. This doesn’t mean a friendship is in trouble or needs to come to an end. It usually just means there are some personal differences, opinions, interpretations, or actions that need to be confronted and worked through.

In long-term or intense friendships, times of contention or disagreement are inevitable and can require you to ‘grow a pair’ if you want to maintain respect. You need to prove you’ve got what it takes to speak out, stand your ground, or back down when necessary. These are the moments when your courage, patience, wisdom, and resolve will be tested. Why? Because these moments involve conversations that need to proactively address difficult topics or issues you would rather avoid talking about or dealing with.

Of course, rough seas occur in even the closest friendships. But how you handle or navigate these seas can determines what happens next. What happens when your friend hides something from you that you would want to know? What happens when your friend divulges your secrets to someone else? What happens when your friend is acting irresponsibly or inappropriately and needs to be set straight? In order to maintain healthy, mutually beneficial friendships, tough talks sometimes need to be had. It’s the only way to circumvent bigger problems, avoid being taken for granted, or escape causing unintentional hurt.

With that said, here are four practical tips to help you handle difficult conversations with your friends:

Make a Plan

You’re pretty much familiar with the cliché “failing to plan is planning to fail”. Although it sounds corny, it’s the truth. To talk about something sensitive, you need to have your thoughts in order. You can’t just wing it and expect things to flow smoothly. Think about what you intend to talk about before you approach your friend. You don’t want to get off track or fail to cover the entirety of the problem. This can cause more obstacles with unresolved or periphery issues later, especially with highly sensitive scenarios. Thus, jot down a few points about what you wish to say, and then read and rehearse how you want to structure your words. If they matter to you, then taking this time is well worth it.

Set the Perfect Time

Imagine telling your friend on his/her birthday that you’re ending the friendship. It sounds and is absurd no matter how genuine your reasons. Knowing the appropriate circumstance to tell your friend about what’s bothering you is important. It greatly determines how he/she is going to take it.

To know the right time to talk, think about what you wish to talk about. Ending a friendship, for instance, shouldn’t happen in public. You shouldn’t bring up the fact you saw her/his spouse with someone else while rushing the kids into school at drop off either.  

Think also about your friend’s schedule – a sensitive topic shouldn’t be raised when your friend has something significant ahead of him/her. You don’t want to be the cause of a ruined mood or day, do you? Know the proper environment for certain discussions. For example, if you’re dealing with an addiction that you need your friend’s help with, your best bet would be to talk in private – probably when your friend is not occupied with a litany of other distractions.

If you want a more relaxed setting, you can monitor your conversations with your friend and when you feel the time is right, insert or approach the topic casually. If you’re unsure, you can just schedule a meeting. Something along the lines of “Please I need to talk to you, when will you be free?” will help. Chances are your friend would suspend or adjust his/her schedule just to listen to you.

Remain Calm

One of the easiest ways to forget whatever you planned on saying is to start freaking out. Yes, it’s a tough topic, and you’re most likely uncomfortable and even scared just thinking about it. But you’re already in front of your friend, and there’s no backing out now. You can’t afford to stutter, get panicky, or lose focus.

While sensitive topics might have you fumbling your words, you can and should remind yourself to keep calm. One of the easiest ways to tell the truth is to just block out how it will sound and what the other person will think—just get it out without rushing. Rather than letting your fear of what your friend might think or say get to you, shut out the fear and speak one word at a time.

To be fair, this takes practice. You’ll most likely stumble on your words, but don’t think about that. Focus on what you want to say and keep talking calmly and quietly until you’ve finished pouring out what’s in your heart. Once you’re done talking, you can worry about what your friend might think or say. But it’s your job to deliver your feelings with peace and clarity.  

Wait, Listen, and Don’t Interrupt

Have you gotten everything off your chest? Have you said what you came to say? Have you covered all the angles? Now—shut your mouth.

The worst thing you could do at this point is to keep randomly talking or changing the subject without giving your friend her/his chance to absorb what you’ve said and respond. You also are not allowed to tell your friend what they are thinking or feeling by ‘guessing’ what they are going to say or think. That is rude and presumptive.

Keep calm and listen. Give your friend the chance to speak too. Don’t assume what he/she thinks, let your friend tell you instead. Depending on the issue at hand, your friend might also be hurting. So rather than blurting everything out and running away, pause for a few minutes and be sensitive.

When a problem is shared, it is only half solved. To completely solve it, you need all the insight you can get. In this case, your friend’s words or thoughts need to be heard, so that you know what to think or do next.

Last Words

No one said friendships would be easy but the ones worth holding on to are definitely worth it. Telling a friend something they won’t want to hear, admitting to a friend you’ve done something wrong, or standing up for yourself when you’ve been wronged by a friend—all of these are not something you look forward to exactly. But they are necessary if you want the relationship to heal, evolve, or improve.

But plan, pick the right time, be calm, and allow your friend to respond. You owe it to the both of you.

Once you’ve had the difficult conversation, keep in mind that you may need to bring the topic up once and a while to check on it if it’s a matter of trust, accountability, or continued encouragement. Once the issue has been openly discussed, the fear of it should be removed or at least significantly reduced. Remember why the two of you are friends, and don’t let one conversation ruin your precious memories (or at least it not be ruined because of your silence). If the issue is beyond repair and you do need to end the friendship, remember that it’s better to walk away peacefully and with a sense of closure. Let’s avoid regrets when at all possible.

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