Print Friendly Logo

Want to share this page with your friends?

Tips for Having Challenging Conversations


For your family, the dinner table may be a good place to discuss difficult issues.

However, these conversations can be challenging, especially when a sensitive topic arises and tempers flare. To reduce arguments and tense moments, try pinpointing topics to avoid at dinner (for instance, if grades are a sore spot, agree to discuss them away from the table).

If things get too heated, your family can also take a break from the conversation. Step back, press pause, and talk to each other about how you want your discussion to go. And if you find that mealtimes are too filled with conflict, consider establishing the dinner table as a place to relax and enjoy one another’s company. Save deep inter-personal and disciplinary issues for other settings, such as sitting on the sofa or taking a walk.

That said, here are a few simple tips for navigating challenging conversations and having more fulfilling, stress-free discussions at your dinner table!

  • Review past conversations: Ask each other, “How has this kind of conversation gone before? What worked well? What do we want less of?” Think about what you want to prevent, what you want to promote and what kind of a plan will get you there.
  • Create some “ground rules” that will minimize problems and maximize respectful connection. Some examples:
    • No interrupting when someone is speaking.
    • No shouting or raised voices.
    • No condemnation or judgment.
  • Ask questions to understand each other better, not to instruct or shame. Instead of saying “How can you possibly think that way?” try “Can you tell me more about how you came to that idea?”
  • Decide how long you’ll talk about this subject. If kids know this is going to be limited exploration, not an hour-long inquisition, the invitation to speak might be more inviting.
  • When someone is speaking, listen. Rather than preparing a response, focus on understanding the speaker. You might want to set a time limit on talking, so everyone knows they’ll have a chance to speak. Stopwatches or egg timers might be helpful.
  • Before starting a conversation, go around the table and let everyone speak about an issue. Let everyone have a turn to speak before anyone responds.
  • Examine your assumptions about what others saying. When someone says something that angers or upsets you, take a moment to examine and explain your assumptions about their words. For instance, if a family member feels they are being talked down to, she or he might say, “When you say that, it sounds like you think I’m not smart enough. Is that what you mean, or something else?” It sounds simple, but voicing these thoughts can go a long way towards reducing misunderstandings.
  • Ask everyone about what they’re hearing. To ensure that you’re communicating in the way you want, ask your family members to tell you what they’re hearing when you speak. This ensures that your words are having the impact you want. For instance, try saying, “I’m worried that you might be taking what I said the wrong way. What do you hear when I say…?”
  • Stop every so often and ask: “Is this conversation going how we would like it to?” If not, step back, and discuss how you can reorient the discussion.

Difficult ConversationJarad and Azure were mad at their parents for restricting their TV time. They complained about it often, and loudly. Their parents, Chris and Robbie, suggested that they talk about it over dinner, at the end of the week. Everyone agreed to brainstorm some ground rules that would help each family member listen, speak and be heard.

At mid-week, they agreed on their rules: no shouting, pouting or name-calling. That Friday night, over dinner, each family member said why they thought more or less TV time was a good thing. To start off, each person spoke for 2 minutes while the others listened. Then, the family members talked back and forth, asking each other honest questions and making a real effort to listen.

Chris and Robbie were impressed with their kids’ ability to articulate their perspectives, and they learned a lot that they didn’t know about what was important to them (for example, they learned their kids liked to watch educational nature shows). Likewise, Azure and Jarad understood more about why their parents had clamped down on TV time (they wanted them to play outside more, so they would be healthy).For the first time, everyone felt that their views on the subject had really been listened to, and the family figured out a compromise. As long as the kids kept their grades up, played outside frequently and stayed connected with the family, they would be able to watch three hours of TV on the weekends.