Healthy Buffs: How to have a difficult conversation

Spending time with family and friends can be as stressful as it is enjoyable. Even when people have the best intentions, we can find ourselves in difficult conversations. Here’s how to make these interactions feel more productive and positive this holiday season.

Conflicting emotions

After being at school, it’s not uncommon to be thinking about new things or to have different views than your family. It’s important to remember when communicating that we might both love and care for family members while disagreeing with them. This internal conflict can be expected and doesn’t necessarily have to be resolved.

It’s important that we allow for this complexity, communicate our thoughts with respect, and be willing to consider what someone else has to say.

Coping in the moment

Sometimes difficult conversations and frustrating interactions catch us off-guard, or escalate more than we expect. In these moments, we need to practice on-the-spot self-care to resource ourselves and ensure we can respond rationally. Give one of these coping strategies a try before responding:

  • Remember to take long breaths while listening to stay present in the moment.
  • Use sensory awareness to stay present with your experience. While you’re talking to someone it may be helpful to remain aware of your senses (what you see, hear, feel).
  • Allow your body to be your guide. While talking with others you might notice many emotions and sensations. Focus your attention on those that help you feel strong and secure.

De-escalating and reframing  

When the conversation or situation gets heated, it’s difficult to make any progress. In these situations, de-escalating and returning to the facts are important. Reiterate why this conversation is important and that you value the other person, acknowledge that you recognize they value you as well, and refocus on what feels important for you to say.

Reframe the conversation as a healthy dialogue. If the volume ticks up, use your own voice to bring it back down; if you find yourself getting frustrated, bring in a coping strategy before speaking again. If need be, ask to take a break and return to the conversation after everyone has time to cool off—maybe by taking a walk, having a snack, or getting a good night’s sleep.

The LEAP method

When entering or re-entering the conversation, the LEAP method can be key to maintaining a healthy dialogue. LEAP stands for Listen, Empathize, Agree and Partner. Listen actively to what the other person is saying, empathize by showing you understand their point of view, agree on non-judgmental common ground, and become partners by summarizing the discussion and identifying ways to move forward together.

Managing expectations

While it would be nice, change doesn’t happen overnight. Conversations don’t always resolve the way we’d like, and more often than not, seeing progress requires a series of conversations and a willingness to keep trying. There is still value in finding our voices and saying what we need to say.

Additionally, others can’t always meet our expectations. Before going into a potentially stressful situation, it’s important to check-in with ourselves about what we’re expecting and what might realistically happen, so we can prepare emotionally.

Planning a difficult conversation

Sometimes we need to start the difficult conversation ourselves. Choosing a quiet area to talk, finding a time that works for all parties, and explaining why you want to have this conversation and what you hope will come of it can all make for a better interaction.

Establishing this respect and utilizing the LEAP method are the foundations for keeping the other person engaged, listening, and feeling heard. When it then comes time to conclude the conversation, agreeing to talk more at another time and thanking each other for listening can help to preserve the relationship and lay the groundwork for future interactions.

The Healthy Buffs series is brought to you by Wardenburg Health Services. Visit us online at