How To Keep Your Emotions In Check During A Difficult Conversation

It all comes down to nailing the basics.

Couple sitting at breakfast table having an intense converation

In any relationship, the ability to handle tough subjects is something of an art form. It can be hard to keep your cool and stay on topic, especially if you feel like you’re being attacked or blamed. A good conversation is a balance between being empathetic to what your partner is telling you while also advocating for yourself. It’s a two-way street and navigating it with grace and composure is the only way to ensure success.

Easier said than done? Umm yeah. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. And what it requires is adhering to the basics of good conversation.

If you know that you’re going to have a difficult conversation, it’s important to come prepared and remind yourself that agreement is not essential, offers Heidi Cox, a licensed clinical psychologist and the founder and director of Centered Space Psychology, “Your job is not to make the other person agree with you,” she says. “If you go into the conversation seeking validation, it will be much harder.”

Indeed. When approaching a potentially unpleasant conversation, your mindset is the difference maker. If you look at the discussion as a chance to be open and grow closer to someone, as opposed to an inquisition, you will likely have a more positive outcome. Even if the conversation has been thrust upon you, that mindset is critical.

When approaching a potentially unpleasant conversation, your mindset is the difference maker.

The energy you bring to the discussion plays a big part in how it plays out. It’s important to keep the conversation calm and rational, even when pain points are struck. Yes, your partner may be critical of you, and you them. That’s sometimes necessary. But losing your temper, yelling, or becoming defensive will only fuel more negativity and ensure that neither of you will achieve what you had intended to when the discussion began.

“If we enter a conversation on the defensive, the other person may become defensive,” says Helena Roman, a relationship strategist and empowerment coach. “Our emotions create a kind of energy. If we’re emitting a calm and proactive mindset, our conversations will benefit.”

If you feel like you’re being attacked during the discourse, rather than going on the offensive, simply let your partner know how you’re feeling. Above all, stay calm, even if that means you have to step away.

“Taking a moment to gather your thoughts, focusing on your breath, even counting to five in your mind before responding can help quell anxiety during a tough conversation,” says Roman.

One of the more difficult parts of having a tough conversation is understanding that you must be open to hearing something negative about yourself. Your partner may be bringing up this topic as a means of fixing something that’s wrong in your relationship, and you need to be able to hear — and ideally accept — what he or she is saying.

“If you keep yourself open to the possibility of negative feedback or disagreement, it will be easier to listen and take it in,” says Cox.

How to Communicate Effectively During A Difficult Conversation

When in the midst of a hard discussion, there are a number of ways to communicate effectively. Of course, the basic tenets of good conversation apply. Avoid blame, assumptions, and passive-aggressive responses. All three can ratchet up tension to an undesirable level. So too can interrupting, which is why it’s crucial to, say, count to five before responding so you know the other party has finished speaking.

Some experts recommend using the “talking stick” approach when couples are having a big conversation. This can be particularly effective for couples who tend to interrupt each other and interject a lot. Only the person who has the stick can speak, which can go a long way to reducing the pressure in a conversation, allowing everyone a chance to be heard. Cheesy, but helpful.

Of course, the right actions are also key. Listening actively and asking the right questions can help you to understand what your partner is trying to communicate, which will diffuse the situation and help ease tension. The goal is to make sure you understand what they are actually trying to say so there’s no confusion and they feel heard and unashamed.

If you keep yourself open to the possibility of negative feedback or disagreement, it will be easier to listen and take it in.

“Asking the right questions can help reach a resolution as well as foster a deeper sense of understanding between the parties,” Roman says. “Sometimes statements or even questions can come off as critical or even feel like an attack, so it’s important to use probing phrases that encourage understanding. ‘Help me understand…’ versus ‘Why did you…’”

If a conversation becomes too tense, It’s also okay to table it for a future conversation. Not everything needs to be resolved in one talk, and taking space to process what was said in the initial discussion can be a great way to make progress and ensure that the next conversation will flow more smoothly.

“Keep in mind you may not reach a resolution during just one conversation, and that’s okay,” Roman says. “Afford yourself and others permission to sleep on it and return to the conversation at a later time.”

When you feel attacked during an intense conversation, see it as an opportunity for growth and improvement.

The most important thing you can do to keep your emotions in check during a heavy conversation is one of the more difficult: to not take everything personally. Things may be said that rub you the wrong way. The other person may say something hurtful because they feel cornered.

When you feel attacked during an intense conversation, see it as an opportunity for growth and improvement. If you just see it as your partner coming down on you, you’ll invariably blow up and nothing will get resolved. Learn what you’re sensitive about and recognize when one of those topics is hit. Step back a moment and realize that it isn’t about you, but rather about what you’re doing (or not doing). See it as a chance for personal growth rather than an indictment of who you are.

“Whatever the matter is that you are discussing, make it objective so that there is some distance between you and the issue,” says Cox. “That makes it easier to listen openly and use the feedback to improve the situation.”

And that’s how you get through it. No, this isn’t easy. You’ll both make mistakes. Tempers will likely flair. But if you learn from them and correct those issues, your tactics will improve and fights will become far less frequent. And when you have these discussions, they’ll feel less intense because you’ll have practiced the correct way to go about them. You’ll trust yourself to handle them.