4 Difficult Conversation Starters

Starting a difficult conversation with a colleague, a partner, a friend, or a patient can be tough. That's why many of us avoid these situations.  But you don't have to run away from conflict. Here the Savvy Psychologist outlines 4 conversation starters to help you over the conflict conundrum. 

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
2-minute read

In the podcast episode How to Stop Avoiding Conflict, I offered a whopping 13 tips to help you stop screening your calls and start a productive conversation.  But getting started can still be a struggle.  To ease your path, here are 4 sample scripts to jump start your difficult discussion (you can find all the definitions mentioned in these approaches in How to Stop Avoiding Conflict):

For Andrea, the Savvy Psychologist listener and nurse who asked about how to address DNR with a patient, we’ll use unified detachment, blaming your role, and an open ending:

“We all want you to be healthy and go home soon, and we also want to be prepared.  It’s my job as a nurse to make sure all patients, not just you, are on the same page as their care team and their families.  So I’d like to walk you through some DNR paperwork.  Would that be OK with you?”

To open a conversation about spending more time with your partner, we’ll open well, use unified detachment, soft emotion, “and,” and a Columbo ending:

“Hey hon, I need your help with something.  I know we both value a balance of freedom and togetherness, and I miss hanging out with you when you work on your laptop after dinner.  I’d love to spend a couple more evenings a week together.  How do you see it?”

To open a conversation about a friend owing you money, we’ll use unified detachment, facts, and a Columbo ending:

“Hey, a couple of months ago you needed some money to fix your car.  I imagine both of us want to get that squared away.  How’s it coming on your end?”

To get a coworker to stop being exclusionary, we’ll use unified detachment, feelings, “and,” and a Columbo ending:

“Hey, can I bounce something off of you that I think will help us work better together?  I’m sure it wasn’t your intention, and I felt excluded when you met with the boss on your own about our project.  Can you tell me how you saw that meeting?”

Listen to the How to Stop Avoiding Conflict episode or read the show notes for all 13 tips, and remember it’s a recipe: start with unified detachment—that goal that both you and your conversation partner can get behind.  Add a dash of facts, feelings, and a willingness to be naturally curious.  Garnish it with a Columbo ending, and you’ll have whipped up a masterful dialogue. 

Be aware, however, that this recipe is an acquired taste.  Most of us have a lifetime of avoiding conflict behind us, and it can be a difficult habit to change.  Start out with one or two of the approaches and build from there.  With practice, you’ll never again hide in the restroom to avoid a tough conversation.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.