How can I have honest conversations on sensitive topics?

Two young women having an honest conversation on a park bench in winter.

Where is the balance between speaking from the heart and listening with compassion?

Thanks to recent events, many of us have probably had a tough time lately keeping our cool in the midst of some contentious issues. We hear or see something which triggers some strong emotions, and our instinct is to either disengage completely, or else confront them with all our righteous wrath. Unfortunately, neither of these responses is the best for our own emotional health—or that of the person we’re talking to.

It’s hard balancing the desire to speak the honest truth—as we see it—and listen carefully to others. We’re hurting ourselves, and we want that pain to be acknowledged. We want to keep the other person from making a serious mistake, but we’re afraid they’ll ignore what we have to say. It could be that we see they’re in pain, but we worry that what we say might hurt them more. Or maybe we’re worn-out from seeing them hurt themselves in the same way, over and over again, and we just want to find a way to get through to them so that they’ll change their behavior.

How can we be have honest conversations on these sensitive issues in a way that is respectful to the other person without draining our own emotional reserves?

Make sure you’re ready.

If this is a particularly traumatic subject for you, make sure you’re ready to talk about it. It can take time to heal, and if you’re still feeling vulnerable, you run the risk of reopening some barely-closed wounds. It’s OK to distance yourself from someone if you’re feeling raw, or if you’re worried discussing this topic could hurt you again.

That said, you should take active steps to heal. Sometimes we become so used to hurting, or to holding bitter feelings against someone in our hearts, that we forget what a painful and unhealthy situation this is to be in. If you’re struggling with some very real pain—violence, abuse, mental illness, or loss—find a professional to help guide you through.

Once you’re strong again, part of your healing process may involve having some of these honest conversations with the people around you. A professional psychiatrist or counselor can help you understand when you’re ready.

Set aside time to talk.

Approaching these situations takes a lot of patience. If you find yourself entering sensitive territory in the heat of an argument, find a way to step back and calm down. Acknowledge with the other person that you’re broaching a difficult subject, and make sure you both agree that you want to move forward. Or, if you have the opportunity, ask ahead of time if you can talk about this subject, and find a time and place where you both feel comfortable talking.

So instead of starting drama with your best friend in the middle of a party, ask to have breakfast the next day. Or when your co-worker does something that bothers you, ask them out to coffee. And when your new Facebook friend starts posting things that make your blood boil, find a way to address it calmly and in person rather than over the Internet. Make sure you’re not springing the topic on them out of the blue, and then keep the following rules in mind.

Tough talk doesn’t help anything but your ego.

How many of us have charged into a sensitive topic full of the desire to dish out some “tough talk,” and then felt frustrated when our cold, hard common sense fell on deaf ears? The problem is that we’re so convinced we’re right (which we might not be) that we forget it’s not the most important thing.

Tough talk is not real talk. Real talk is sincere, compassionate, and supportive. Real talk lets those conversing experience one another’s presence in a potentially dark and isolating time. Tough talk however, comes from a place of impatience rather than love for the other person. We’re tired of dealing with their problem, and we feel it’s our right to weigh in. Whenever you feel the desire to deliver a lesson with the verbal equivalent of the ice bucket challenge, take a step back and ask yourself if it’s just your ego talking.

Hold your anger back.

Sometimes, someone will say something that triggers every frustrated, outraged bone in our body. We want to interrupt and start lecturing, then and there, with all the indignation we can muster. We see red.

The problem is, when we do this, we lose sight of the person in front of us. They may be wrong, and their actions may have consequences that go beyond themselves. But in a sensitive situation, they will never respond well to anger. If your goal is to have a meaningful dialogue, release your indignation and find a way to walk alongside that person. You’ll stand a better chance of winning them over if they don’t feel attacked.

Listening is not a compromise.

You can acknowledge pain and still speak honestly. Sometimes, we’re afraid to acknowledge another person’s suffering, because we’re afraid it will invalidate our own experience or worldview. Instead of listening to their pain, we respond with comments like “but it’s your own fault, if you’d just listened to me…” or else, “but this only proves what I’ve been telling you all along.”

When someone opens up to you about an intensely painful topic, it’s not the time to say “I told you so.” Instead, it’s time to focus on how best to heal the pain of that person. You don’t have to accept or agree with everything they say. But listening will allow you to better address the heart of the issue that both of you have committed to struggling with together.

Honesty can be subtle.

Sometimes, the most profound truths are also incredibly subtle. It’s rare that any of us are 100% right, and much more frequently we find that both of us are partially right and partially blind to the needs of the other.

This is especially true when it comes to particularly sensitive topics. You may disagree with someone over an intensely important issue, each of you seeing a different side of a larger problem. But when you balance compassion and honesty, you can find a way to work toward a closer understanding of each other.

Iris Proctor
Iris is the director of ArborWoman.