How to Have a Difficult Conversation With a Loved One or Friend

These strategies can make tough conversations more effective

Couple Of Friends Talking And Drinking Coffee At Pool Hall
Hinterhaus Productions / Getty Images

Whether you’re concerned about your daughter's decision not to vaccinate her children or you think it’s time to talk to your parents about moving to an assisted living facility, bringing up sensitive subjects with loved ones is never easy. And if you’re not careful, your well-intended words could offend—or even alienate—your loved one.

Before you jump into a difficult conversation, invest some time into thinking about how you’re going to craft your message. A well-planned discussion is much more likely to be well-received.

Wait Until You Feel Calm

The matter you want to discuss is probably urgent—but that doesn’t mean it’s an emergency. Wait to hold the discussion until you’re calm enough to do so in a meaningful way.

Otherwise, your passion for the subject may cause you to say things that aren’t helpful and you may harm your relationship. Wait until you’re calm enough to bring up the subject without yelling, making accusations, or saying things that are better left unsaid.

Consider the Goal of the Conversation

Spend some time thinking about why you want to hold the conversation. Gaining a better understanding of your emotions will help you move forward in the best way possible. Be honest with yourself about your fears.

For example, are you afraid of what other people might think if you continue to allow your elderly parents to live alone? Or, are you afraid that you won’t be able to give them enough help if they stay alone?

Make sure you’re honest with yourself about your intentions, needs, and goals for the conversation. Consider what an ideal outcome would look like, but recognize that you can’t force anyone else to adopt your viewpoint or make the changes you suggest.

Educate Yourself

Take some time to educate yourself on the subject as well. If it’s a controversial issue, be willing to look at evidence from the other side—this is not to arm yourself so you can argue better, but instead, to truly understand the other person’s viewpoint.

Whether you decide to conduct some online research or you reach out to other individuals who can relate to the subject, take steps to learn more.

You might also seek out people who have been through similar circumstances. For example, you might find it helpful to speak with other people who have held similar conversations with their loved ones. Ask them what parts of the conversation went well, what parts didn’t go well, and whether they have any suggestions for you.

Pick a Good Time to Talk

Hold the conversation in-person if you can. A phone call, email, or text message won’t allow you to read the other person’s body language—and they won’t be able to read yours.

It’s vital for the other person to know that you’re coming from a place of concern, not anger or disgust. Sitting down face-to-face can help you convey that message.

Hold the conversation in a comfortable place when both you and the other person have plenty of time to talk. For some discussions, a restaurant or public venue might be appropriate. For other conversations, more privacy may be necessary. You may want to hold the conversation in your home or the other person’s home.

Don’t start the conversation unless you’ll have plenty of time to talk. The last thing you want to do is air your concerns and then run out the door. You also don't want to get halfway through a discussion only to find the other person has to leave.

If you do have to end the discussion early for any reason, make it clear that you want to revisit the conversation again.

Get the Conversation Started

Whether you feel awkward about bringing up the subject or you know that your thoughts aren’t likely to be well-received, it’s hard to know how to get the conversation started.

Sometimes, the best way to start a delicate conversation is by relating the issue back to you. Start by saying something like, “I’ve been thinking about getting long-term care insurance. Do you have long-term care insurance?” Then, you might break into a discussion about homecare versus assisted living.

This can be a good tactic if the problem isn’t particularly urgent. It brings the subject up, but isn’t confrontational.

For other subjects, you might simply acknowledge how tough it is to talk about. Say something like, “This is really hard for me to bring up. But, there’s been something weighing on my mind lately and I don’t think I’d be a good friend if I didn’t let you know.”

You might also find your best option is to invite the other person to share their opinion first. You might say something like, “I’d really like to talk to you about your decision. But first, I’d like to better understand what went into making your decision.”

Use “I” Instead of “You”

Make the conversation a discussion, not a debate. Arguing about medical advice or political issues won’t get you anywhere. The best way to make it a discussion is to use “I” statements. Starting sentences with phrases like, “I think…,” and “I am concerned about...” opens up a conversation.

Rather than say something like, “You can’t care for Dad anymore. He needs to go to a nursing home,” say, “I am concerned that Dad needs more help.”

Saying, “you” sounds accusatory and it will likely put the other person on the defensive. With the "I" or "we" approach, it’s hard for the other person to argue with how you feel or what you think.

Consider your tone of voice. Make sure you don’t come across as condescending or arrogant. Make a special effort to show that you care.

Share Your Fears

Avoid vague, general statements like, “Studies show the older you are the more likely you are to get into a car accident, so you should stop driving.”

Instead, get specific about why you’re concerned. Say something like, “I’m afraid if you keep driving, you might get into an accident and kill yourself or someone else. I’m concerned about the number of problems you’ve had behind the wheel lately.”

While you shouldn’t exaggerate the risks the other person faces, be real about the possibilities the other person might face. Whether you’re fearful of legal, social, financial, psychological, or physical health consequences, share your fears.

Ask Open-Ended Questions

If you do all the talking, your conversation will turn into a lecture. And no one wants to hear a lecture from their loved one.

Invite the other person to share their thoughts by asking open-ended questions. You might simply ask, “What do you think of all this?” If the person seems like they aren’t ready to change yet, ask questions about how they would know when they were ready to change.

Here are some examples of questions to ask in order to assess someone’s readiness for change:

  • “How would you know when it is time to quit smoking?”
  • “How would you recognize when it is time to move to an assisted living facility?”
  • “Are there any circumstances that would make you consider getting that medical test?”
  • “At what point would you be concerned about your high blood pressure?”
  • “When would you know that you aren’t safe to drive anymore?”

Asking these types of questions can help you better understand the other person’s thinking. It can also help them clarify the circumstances in which they might reconsider.

You might also help the other person assess any potentially negative consequences they might face if they don’t take action. Here are some sample questions:

  • “What do you think might happen if you keep smoking?”
  • “If you and Dad stay living at home, what do you think will happen?”
  • “Do you worry that there may be any consequences for not getting vaccinated?”

Sometimes, it’s best for the other person to identify the negative consequences they might face. So rather than list all the risks they face, ask them to identify their concerns. 

Be an Active Listener

Be willing to listen to the other person’s concerns, fears, and frustrations. Don’t interrupt and don’t jump in to disagree.

Make sure that you’re really hearing what the other person is saying. Rather than tune out what your loved one is saying so you can craft your rebuttal, focus on really trying to listen.

Be careful to avoid body language that shows you’re disinterested or annoyed (like rolling your eyes).

Make eye contact with the person. Nodding your head sometimes can also show that you are listening.

Most importantly, reflect back what you hear. Say things like, “So what I hear you telling me is that right now you’re happy with the way things are. You feel like you’re safe. But here’s how you’d know when things would need to change…”

Then, allow the other individual to clarify or offer more information.

Be Empathetic

Show empathy for the other individual. Acknowledge how difficult it must be to make a tough choice or to deal with a situation.

Validate the other person’s feelings by saying things like, “I’m sure it is frustrating to hear things like this,” or “I know how important this is to you.”

Agree on Common Goals

No matter what differences you have, find some common ground. There’s a good chance you and the other person have the same end goal—you just have different means of achieving it.

You might say things like:

  • “We both really love Dad and want him to have the best quality of life possible.”
  • “Both of us care about our daughter’s well-being and we’re both passionate about helping her be as healthy as possible.”
  • “Both of us want you to be as independent as possible for as long as possible.”

Recapping the fact that both of you have a common goal can be a helpful reminder that you don’t need to fight against one another. Instead, you can work together to achieve your goals.

Offer Practical Support

Whether you want your sibling to undergo medical testing or you want your parent to stop driving, offer practical support if the other person is concerned about something specific.

Ask questions like, “What would get in the way of taking your medication on time?” or “What would be the hardest part about not having a car?” Then, you might offer to help solve those problems.

Depending on the situation, you might find it’s helpful to offer practical support by saying things such as:

  • “I’d be happy to schedule an appointment for you just so we could learn more information.”
  • “I can help you figure out the insurance issue. Would you like us to make the call together to learn more?”
  • “We could talk to a lawyer together just to gather more information about what would happen to your house if you went into a nursing home.”
  • “I can help you set up services so you can get more help around the house.”
  • “Let’s go tour the facility together. We don’t have to make any decisions right now, but seeing an assisted living facility will give us a better idea about our options.”
  • “I can arrange to drive you to your appointments and I’ll teach you how to use a ride-booking service that can help you run errands.”

Offer to do something that may make the other person’s life a little less challenging. That may mean problem-solving, brainstorming, or offering up your services to assist. Your support may make a big difference in the other person’s willingness to take a step forward.

Know When to End the Conversation

If the conversation becomes too heated, decide to stop talking about it. If you keep pressing forward, you may damage the relationship.

You may need to make it clear that, above all, you still want to have a relationship, even if you disagree on an important issue. Say something like, “I am afraid if we keep talking about this right now, we may say things that could hurt each other."

Revisit the Conversation at Another Time                    

Don’t expect someone to change their behavior or agree to something different after just one conversation. It may take a series of conversations to help someone come to terms with a problem or better understand their choices.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
  • Salvo MC, Cannon-Breland ML. Motivational interviewing for medication adherence. Journal of the American Pharmacists Association. 2015;55(4):455-456. DOI:10.1016/s1544-3191(15)30093-5

  • Villarosa-Hurlocker MC, Osickey AJ, Houck JM, Moyers TB. Examining the influence of active ingredients of motivational interviewing on client change talk. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. 2019;96:39-45. DOI:10.1016/j.jsat.2018.10.001