When You "Need to Talk" – Planning Difficult Conversations & Explaining Pain

There's a reason why if you Google “difficult conversations” there are a LOT of articles about the topic. It can be a daunting task. But often when we avoid these conversations, or leave circumstances unresolved, we end up feeling resentful, blaming, withdrawn, unfulfilled and disempowered. In this article, we provide you with some valuable strategies on how to be brave – to plan and then tackle these conversations.

In case you need an extra nudge to face the conversation, the science is behind us here1. Research shows having personal conversations builds connection and improves wellbeing. If you bring genuine interest and a desire to see another person's point of view, you are likely to foster connection rather than throw up another wall or roadblock in your relationship2.

Before the conversation

Choose your timing. Ensure you have these conversations when you are calm and focused. Avoid sensitive topics at the beginning of the day (or at least avoid talking before you’ve had a coffee!) and the end of the day, because it can be difficult to talk if you’re tired. Schedule a time that suits you both – sync those calendars!

What's your objective? Be clear about the purpose of the conversation and what you would like to achieve. Don’t only consider what you are aiming for (best outcome), but also areas where you might be willing to compromise and collaborate. Sometimes it can be an important first step to just agree there’s a problem and that you are both willing to explore a solution.

Know your modus operandi. Consider how you will have the conversation. You want a way that allows you to express your thoughts and makes the other person feel comfortable. You may also want to consider how they may react to your conversation. Will they shut down? Give in? Fire up? If you can predict their likely response, you can also plan your own course of action so that things go as smoothly as possible.

Do your research. If your aim is to explain your condition, arm yourself with the latest evidence and some resources. This is not to be wielded like a weapon but it can help to be prepared to meet any uncertainty, reluctance or criticism with some data.

We're same same, but different so as you plan and prepare for your conversation, remember that we are all different – we have different backgrounds, upbringings, values, experiences and that means we communicate and react differently. Keep an open mind and be curious. The best way to understand how they see the world is to ask them!

Start with a clean slate and come in with fresh eyes. That means checking your preconceived ideas and/or assumptions at the door. If either of you come in with a tally of previous hurts or score cards, then there is a chance that this may taint the outcome. Just clearly and kindly state what you want and need.

Bring a good attitude and head into the conversation with the right mindset. Be calm, clear and helpful. You may want to tell yourself that by having this conversation, no matter how difficult, you are likely going to improve your relationship. It is something that is easy to forget, but at the end of the day, we all long for the same things: to be loved, to be safe, and for our loved ones to be loved and safe. So seek mutual respect and shared vulnerability.

Knowledge is power

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During the conversation

Sensational starters set the tone of the conversation with clarity on specific topics that might be covered. For example, “I would really like to share with you how I am feeling and some impacts from my point of view, and then I would like to know your point of view. Does that sound okay?” or “I’m concerned for your wellbeing (and my own?) and I want to talk some more about it”.

Talk from your point of view (POV) and use “I” statements focusing on your feelings and what you want (or what you don't want). Be clear about the impact of the current situation and avoid launching into old stories and past hurts. For example, “When [specific behavior] happens, I feel [an emotion, not a judgement] because …[the impact the behavior has on you]”. Another way to soften this is to talk about your interpretation: “When [XYZ] happens, the story I am telling myself is…”.

Try to avoid absolutes like “never”, “always”, and “every time” and also avoid starting sentences with “You are…” Focus on the behavior of the other person, rather than talking about them as a person (their character traits) because this can feel like a personal attack.

Don’t forget that body language is important too – try to keep it relaxed and open, rather than closed off (arms crossed). But most importantly, be clear, ask for what you want and don't assume or guess – you are not a mind reader after all! As Brené Brown says, “clear is kind”.

Respect their point of view. Conversations are a dance, they move back and forth. When it’s their turn, make sure you are actively listening and giving them your full attention. Often we listen ready to jump in with our opinion, advice, or thoughts. We may desperately want to try to fix things or change their mind. But resist the urge to finish someone's sentences.

Some questions you could ask to help draw out someone else’s perspective are:

  • “How does this affect you?”
  • “What’s at stake for you?”
  • “What is this conversation like for you?”
  • “What do I need to understand?”
  • “What would help us to get on the same page?”
  • “Can you tell me some more about that?
  • “What does support from me look like right now?”

An illustration of two people having a drink and chatting. Speech bubbles include possible conversation questions about pain and its impact, such as 'How does this affect you?' - other options are available in text above.
Possible questions to help kick-start a conversation about pain and how it is impacting on your relationship

Some other responses that might buy you a little time to think and gain more clarity on their POV include, “That’s interesting, tell me more” or “That’s interesting, why would you say that/ do that/ ask that?”. Then, before moving on, clarify and check in that you have understood their perspective. Try asking questions and trying to paraphrase back to them “What I’m hearing/understanding is that you... Is that correct?”.

Be compassionate, allow them time to express their emotions. If they become emotional, it's probably for a very good reason. Remember, tears are nothing to be afraid of and hopefully, with time, they can still express how they feel and continue the conversation. After listening and responding with empathy you may need to restate your intention.

Stay calm if things get messy. It’s possible that during your conversation anger or frustration could bubble over. One way to reduce emotional tension is to concentrate on simply breathing. Pausing to take a deep breath also gives you a chance to choose a response, rather than an automatic knee jerk reaction (one you might regret later!). If things get too heated, you can also take a break with a plan to return to the conversation at a later time (once the energy has settled). And don't forget, that if, on reflection, you didn't show up in the conversation how you had hoped, you can always apologize and try again. You could say something like “I’m sorry, I didn’t handle that well.” or “Sorry. My emotions got the best of me there, what I’m trying to say is...”

Wrap it up when you've said your piece and they've spoken too.

So what next? At the end of the conversation, it would be great to walk away with an actionable plan. It can be good to remember to keep your actions SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and with a timeframe).

After the conversation

Follow up and do what you say you will do with transparency and authenticity. And if the other person neglects to come through on what they promised, make sure that you communicate with them how you feel that they have not followed through on their previous promises.

Be flexible and keep checking in, even if you have had a good resolution be open to revisiting the conversation as life changes. Where pain is involved, we need to remember to ride the waves of unpredictability and be flexible!

So, what are you waiting for...

If you have a difficult conversation with a loved one about their pain we hope this article has helped you to really map it out so you can be clear and prepared. There is no harm in being upfront with a statement like “Hey, this conversation's likely to be hard for me so I’ve made myself some notes, hope that's okay if I refer to it?”

Pain can be really isolating and although these conversations can be tough, they often bring us closer to the one’s we care about most. Talking to others about your pain can help build authentic relationships and connections. So, take this as your motivation to have that conversation that you have been putting off!

Have you had a difficult conversation recently? What worked? What didn't? Do you have some expert tips to share? Let us know what works for you in our Living well with fibromyalgia Facebook Community.

If you want to dive deeper into difficult conversations, please check out our new program, Supporting Someone with Pain to Have MoreGoodDays®, where we unpack this planning process further as well as provide support and information specifically for the support person. Yes, the partner, sibling, parent, child and friend of someone living with pain.