How to Approach a Sensitive Topic with Someone Who’s Reactive

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Doctor Neha: Welcome to Talk Rx with Doctor Neha. I am so excited because today we’re filming from Bali. I’m sure you can tell by the drinks and our relaxed atmosphere and the plants behind us.

We have a special guest today, and her name is Michelle. She’s a nurse, and we met yesterday at the Garden Café. As we got to talking, I realized she had some important questions that I thought might be able to help all of you, so here we are. Welcome, Michelle.

Michelle: Thank you, Doctor Neha. Thank you very much for having me today.

Doctor Neha: What is it that you were thinking about? What were some of the questions coming up around communication?

Michelle: I co-parent my son, who’s two years of age, with his dad, so we have shared custody. The communication between us isn’t great, so every time we need to discuss something about our son, it ends up in an argument. I don’t want to argue all the time in front of my little boy, so I often give in to his dad just to avoid the arguments. But then he’s overstepping my boundaries. He’s getting his way all the time, and my voice isn’t being heard.

Doctor Neha: There’s your question. This one sounds like a really important question around boundaries.

Michelle: Yeah, definitely.

Doctor Neha: There’s this thing you value very much—your son witnessing these arguments, because you know it’s going to have an effect on him. So what you do is you’ve been saying, “You know what? Forget about it. It’s not worth it.” You give up, but then the discomfort now is inside you.

There is something very important about this that I want everyone to know. When you decide not to have a conversation with somebody else with whom you have conflict, the conflict doesn’t go away. It’s really that the conflict isn’t between you and me any more; instead, it now turns into a conflict inside me. Do you see how it just changes its location?

Michelle: Yep.

Doctor Neha: The conflict is still very present. What happens when you walk away after you’ve given up on the conversation? How do you feel in your body in that moment

Michelle: Not good. I feel very angry. I feel angry towards him that he’s got his own way. I’m not happy with myself that my voice wasn’t heard. I don’t feel good. I feel like it’s eating inside of me and it’s going to manifest down the track.

Doctor Neha: Somehow physically?

Michelle: Yes.

Doctor Neha: You’re one of those aware nurses who knows that everything that is physical does not always come from a physical cause. So when you feel like you’ve given up a part of yourself and you worry about your own health, there’s some motivation to learn how to communicate better, right? I’m just going to ask you a simple question: Do you and your son’s father have any rules or agreements around when you communicate?

Michelle: No.

Doctor Neha: Aha. It comes up spontaneously when you’re together.

Michelle: Yep.

Doctor Neha: The first boundary setting you need is to acknowledge that you both love your son tremendously.

Michelle: Definitely.

Doctor Neha: You agree on that. Since you know that you have this love for your son in common, that’s always a great place to begin. You can say, “I know how much you love our son, and I do too, and I’m concerned about the impact of us discussing his care, or any logistics around him, in front of him. So I’m wondering how might we be able to set aside some time when he’s asleep or when he’s somewhere else to have honest discussions together?” Does that sound like it would be helpful?

Michelle: That sounds like a good idea. Setting aside a time when he’s not there, so if it does end up in an argument, your son is not witnessing it.

Doctor Neha: Why do you think you choose to have these conversations in front of him?

Michelle: I suppose it’s just that things come up.

Doctor Neha: It comes up. It’s almost like a volcano if it starts erupting. This is a good thing to think about. So you know is it’s predictable. Even though the conflict seems surprising, it’s one of those dynamics that you have been aware of for some time, right? If you’re going to bring something up that you think is going to cause some sort of disagreement, it might be good to prep for success. Here’s how you would say this. Let’s say you and I were having a difficult conversation. I’d say, “Hey, Michelle. I wanted to talk about our schedule. Something’s come up for me, and I’m wondering when you’d have 15 minutes. When would be a good time for you?” What I just did was tell you the topic, how long I need, and asked when a good time for you would be. Do you see how that’s different?

Michelle: Yeah.

Doctor Neha: Now, if your answer is, “It’s not a good time. I’m busy,” my job is not to take that personally. Do you see how that can be a little bit of a trap? I could easily start thinking, Oh, I knew she wasn’t going to listen to me. My job is to say, “It sounds like right now is not a good time. When would be a better time?”

How does that sound?

Michelle: It sounds good, actually.

Doctor Neha: I have a book for you called TalkRx. This is about five steps to honest conversations that are actually going to create connection for you, so that you’ll be empowered and model for your son how, in his adult life, in relationships, he should communicate.

Michelle: That sounds great.

Doctor Neha: Does that feel like a good beginning?

Michelle: Yeah. It sounds like a good beginning.

Doctor Neha: There’s so much more, but I’m going to defer to the book to make sure that you get the full breadth of it. If you know something’s going to happen with your son’s father, begin with thinking through it a little bit ahead of time, because this is a pattern, right?

Michelle: Yeah.

Doctor Neha: What were some of your takeaways?

Michelle: To basically prepare. So if I know it’s going to be a touchy subject with him, rather than going in there angry, I need to actually prepare what I’m going to say, and say it in a way that gives him that choice as well. “Is this a good time? No? Okay.”

Doctor Neha: “When would be a better time?

Michelle: And not taking things personally. Obviously, with him, I often take all his moods personally.

Doctor Neha: When he agrees to a time, he is actually agreeing to this meeting, which will be a different experience than him feeling like he’s bombarded with a topic in the moment.

Michelle: Definitely.

Doctor Neha: For any of you at home who know you get into a repeated pattern of conflict with a certain person, or over a certain topic, or at family holidays, take a moment to think it through. Instead of avoiding the discomfort, swallowing it, or blowing up in front of someone else, make sure you think through how to prep for success. Chapter 22 in my book, TalkRx, is about this very topic. When you need to talk to someone about a touchy subject, let them know the topic, the amount of time you think it’s going to take, and then ask, “What is a good time for you?”

This has been another episode of TalkRx with Doctor Neha. If you have any questions, you can drop me a tweet at #AskDoctorNeha.com. I’d love to hear what you’re wondering about.

Awareness Prescription

Prep Tough Conversations for Success:
  • Let the other person know the topic you’d like to discuss.
  • Tell them approximately how much time it will take.
  • Ask, “When is a good time for you?”

Here’s an example:

“Hey Andrea, I wanted to discuss my reaction to our conversation at lunch yesterday. It will take about 15 minutes. When is a good time?”

 

Game change,

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