Imagine this scenario: after 8 years of marriage, you feel suffocated and unhappy, signaling the possible end of your relationship. Now, faced with the need for a difficult conversation, the question arises: how do you initiate such a discussion when your husband is unaware of your feelings?

This situation is just one of many where challenging conversations are necessary. Whether it’s discussing the termination of a relationship or negotiating a raise, these conversations have the potential to bruise one or both participants’ egos or self-images. Moreover, they can be a source of anxiety for the person who needs to initiate them.

That’s because difficult conversation typically involves three dimensions: the conversation topic, the associated feelings, and one’s ego. The interplay of these elements can shape the course of the discussion, potentially resulting in complications or a deadlock if not skillfully managed.

The Conversation Topic:

  • Delve into each party’s perspective regarding a particular event or situation.
  • Listen carefully to the other person’s interpretations and facts of the situation, while presenting your own as well. The focus here shouldn’t be on your understanding of the situation alone.
  • Recognize that the rules we live by often stem from our past experiences, meaning what holds true for us might not necessarily apply to others.
  • A constructive conversation is one where both parties are clearly aware of each other’s understanding of what transpired.

The Associated Feelings:

  • Explore and acknowledge the emotions and feelings of each person involved in the difficult conversation
  • Acknowledge that feelings are an integral part of conversations and cannot be excluded from them.
  • Create an environment where emotions can be expressed openly and understood by all parties.
  • Recognizing the emotions of others requires active listening. However, if you yourself have unresolved feelings, you might struggle to fully engage. In such cases, there’s a tendency to withdraw inward, prioritizing our inner selves over others. Thus, taking the time to address and process certain emotions in advance can contribute to a more constructive conversation.

The Ego

  • Examine how the situation has affected the other’s sense of self, integrity, and particularly their self-worth.
  • Recognize the impact of the conversation on their identity and their values.
  • Both parties should encourage the other to express how the situation aligns or conflicts with their core identity, perhaps you may uncover deeper issues that may be influencing the conversation.

These three dimensions, when examined effectively, contribute to a more comprehensive and constructive dialogue, fostering understanding and resolution.


Stone, D., Patton, B., & Heen, S. (1999). Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. Penguin Books



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