How To Navigate Difficult Conversations: Do’s and Don’ts

Having a conversation about a tough topic, like addiction or mental health, can feel like navigating a minefield. But these conversations are so important to maintaining healthy, loving relationships with others as well as with ourselves.

So how do you avoid stepping on a mine? Here’s some advice from six Shatterproof staffers.

Two men talking by a lake at sunset. Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

In recovery, I learned that when having a difficult conversation with someone you love, you’ve got to do three things.

It's important to (1) repeat what you heard, (2) explain your reaction, and (3) take responsibility for how you feel. Something like this: “When I hear you say, ‘You were such a successful child but now that I know you struggle with addiction, I'm ashamed to tell my friends about you’, the way I experience that is that you're only proud of me when I'm the perfect daughter. That makes me feel sad."

Doing this isn’t easy, but it helps move the conversation past “what you said made me feel this way” to “how we can talk authentically about what we both feel so we can move forward.”

- Sarah S.


Do try to have the conversation in person if possible.

Ask questions along the way, make sure to listen, and come from a place of compassion and empathy. As far as don’ts go: Don’t get discouraged if your conversation doesn’t go as planned. Don’t place blame or jump to conclusions. And above all, don’t argue.

- Susan W.


There used to be this amazing radio psychologist Dr. Joy Browne, and she used the phrase “curious not furious.”

This has stuck with me about approaching every potential difficult conversation. Sometimes we make assumptions or jump right to being angry, when if you approach the situation as more curious than angry, it may change the entire tone of the conversation.

- Kirsten S.


Speak from the heart about how you’re impacted by whatever’s being discussed.

Use “I” statements, because no one can discount how you feel. (And don’t speak for anyone else—they will feel like you are ganging up on them.) Schedule a time to talk so it is not interrupted or rushed, and so everybody can focus on the conversation. Also, make sure the setting is comfortable and private. Finally, breathe. Do a meditation or breathing exercise before or spend some time in nature to get yourself into a good headspace.

- Holly J.


Honesty is key.

I struggle with not wanting to hurt people’s feelings, but I had to realize that by not telling them the truth, I was hurting them more. You can be honest and nice at the same time. If you always come from a place of love, it’s hard to go wrong. Also, never stop believing in the person you’re talking to. Everyone can learn, change, and grow and sometimes what the person who’s struggling needs most is for you to believe in them more than they believe in themself at that moment. 

- Renee B.


Remember that you’re not just a floating brain. You live in a body, too.

In order to effectively use your brain, especially during times of high stress or intense emotion, you have to take care of the body that holds it. Before any tough discussion, make sure you’re rested, hydrated, and fed. Stretch, meditate, take some deep breaths. I’d bet some of the most famous misunderstandings in human history can be traced back to an empty stomach or a lost night of sleep.

- Jess K.