I watched an interview with Melissa Gates, co-founder of the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation. Bill and Melissa work with partners around the world to help effect change globally and then scale solutions down to a local level. The foundation works to empower countries and individuals to care for themselves and to provide care for others.

In the interview, Melissa was asked how change in the world happens, and she answered that change needs to begin by having the hard conversations that we all want to avoid.  She used the example of someone once asking her if she was a feminist, Melissa decided that until she was able to be a feminist at home and have those hard conversations with her husband she wasn’t able to go out in the world and be a feminist. This made me think about working with couples and how difficult it is for them to have the difficult conversations with one another.

In the Psychology Today article “Just Say It…. We all have things we are not saying to the people we love.” The article wrestles with the idea that not every issue needs to be discussed and that there is value in sometimes avoiding certain subjects. This of course, is true, couples need to learn when it’s important to hold back and when it’s important to talk…no matter how hard that might be.

We all avoid difficult issues, both small and large, because we feel the discussion can escalate and that might mean the end of a relationship. But avoiding difficult conversations is risky because the issues are still there and will create resentment and hard feeling until the issue is worked through and resolved. When we avoid having the hard conversations we limit ourselves, our relationships, and the possibility of change.

So it’s not surprising that most people who avoid conflict find a partner who isn’t afraid of conflict. This in itself is usually uncomfortable but it really is a huge opportunity for both partners. Often the person who avoids conflict can teach the other to pull back and choose their battles and address it in a way that is digestible for others. Conversely, the person more comfortable with conflict can teach the other that addressing conflict can be safe and empowering.

In my experience, couples usually start to raise issues in the session but the minute it gets uncomfortable they seem to automatically pivot into their familiar narrative. One couple I work with reverts to the same narrative that “actually everything is ok and not really a problem”, convincing themselves that their relationship is fine and that it’s better not to go there; in other words the couple colludes with one another just to stay comfortable and safe. Another couple I’ve worked with blames their inability to resolve issues on the wife’s hormone issues. It keeps the couple stuck, unable to resolve and move on.

The truth is, going to an uncomfortable place is hard for everyone and once this is acknowledged it is more likely that couples are able have the difficult conversations and find better understanding and resolution.

The best way to change this pattern is to start noticing when this happens. Observe when you start to feel uncomfortable with a conversation (it will be felt in the body, a tightness in the chest, throat or tummy). Registering this will allow you to begin to feel more comfortable and perhaps even help you take the risk of saying what you want to say. Of course, this is a process and it takes time to begin to see the change in yourself and your partner.

Esther Perel explains how to have hard conversations with your partner

Forbes, the business magazine surprisingly provides some concrete advise on how to push through difficult conversations that is relevant for professional and personal issue.

1. Be direct. When having a difficult conversation…Be specific. …
2. Plan out the conversation. …
3. Watch your language. … Offer a solution
4. Manage your emotions. …
5. Be empathetic. …
6. Allow the other person to ask questions.

So whether discussing world or personal issues that can wound us, we need to develop the muscle to help us strengthen our resolve to have those hard conversations. As I watch couples find their confidence to push through and have the hard conversations skilfully and sensitively, I know they have the resources they need to get through even the most sticky conversations.

Shirlee Kay