Tips to help manage difficult conversations

With the holiday season in full effect, the thought of talking about controversial issues such as politics or religion with friends and family can be terrifying. Families are often made up of both outspoken and reserved individuals, and some might be more confrontational than others.

While you may not be able to prevent uncomfortable topics from coming up, Laurel Hyle with Baylor College of Medicine says there are strategies to help manage difficult discussions.


“Know your goal – are you trying to share ideas, influence someone’s thoughts, open a conversation, avoid a topic of conflict or something else?” she said.

How to engage respectfully

If you choose to engage in a sensitive topic with someone, Hyle suggests considering the following phrases when your intent is to disagree respectfully while at the same time attempting not to escalate conflict:

  • “I’ve never thought about it that way.”
  • “That’s interesting; I don’t look at it that way.”
  • “May I share with you my thoughts/how I think about that?”
  • “I guess this is one of those topics where reasonable minds might differ.”
  • “Do you think some people might interpret that as being/sounding…” (Discriminatory, exclusionary, angry, etc.)?
  • “Does it concern you that this could lead to…” (Compromising certain rights, destabilizing relationships, etc.)?
  • “I appreciate you sharing your perspective; I tend to look at that issue quite differently.”

If you’d rather put an end to the discussion, Hyle suggests using the following phrases:

  • “Thanks so much for sharing that…” and move on to a different topic.
  • “I need to run.” or “I have to go.”

Hyle emphasized the use of language that is neutral, non-threatening, inquisitive and not presumptuous. She also encourages those participating in the conversation to be aware of body language.

Dealing with situational triggers

If you or someone you know have experienced trauma or feel strongly about a subject, certain words or phrases may trigger an emotional response. Hyle offers these tips to help work through a situation where you’ve been triggered:

  • Become an observer in your own life; Recognize that you’ve been triggered.
  • Understand the roots of the trigger – What triggered you? What does that link to within you?
  • Acknowledge and accept the emotion(s) the trigger produces.
  • Make an active choice about how you would like to act in the situation and begin to move in that direction.
  • Support yourself in shifting from where the trigger has taken you to where you want to be – long term and short term.

Hyle says engaging in conversations about sensitive topics is a choice, and that it’s important to consider how you’re feeling before making a decision.

“Are you prepared, intellectually, emotionally and holistically to have this conversation at this time? Recognize that it can be acceptable and healthy to establish boundaries for situations you don’t currently feel prepared for,” she said.

-By Nicole Blanton

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