How To Bring Up Difficult Topics With Friends
All relationships take work. Communication is the most important part of any relationship. It’s something we always talk about when the topic of dating comes up. But we don’t seem to talk about it when it comes to friendship.
Let me be the first to tell you: I am not good at bringing up hard conversations. I will talk about feelings of sadness as an abstract feeling, or excitement, or happiness until I’m blue in the face. But if someone has upset me, hurt my feelings, or if I believe they’re doing something harmful to themselves, I struggle to find my voice.
I’ve been so afraid of rejection, of people getting mad at me, and of hurting others that I tend to stuff it all down deep inside.
I spoke to a therapist about this once and he asked me, “would you rather feel the hurt and upset yourself than talk it out with the person who is upsetting you?” My answer? “Yes, yes I would.”
Talking with him helped, though. He helped me see that I can communicate in a way that works for me, allowing me to voice my problems and still feel okay about it. I can’t control how someone else will react or feel, but I can control how I approach the situation.
I’ve also worked hard to change my mindset, to value my feelings more and give myself and my friends more credit. I deserve to be able to use my voice and speak my mind, just as I would want my friends to come to me if they had something on their minds. The tricky part has been trying to find the best way to bring up something tough, respectfully.
Bringing up tough stuff with friends respectfully is hard.
It will always be hard. I think for certain types of friendships it might be easier.
For example a friend of mine, who is rather blunt, once told me “if I ever upset you, just tell me, I have lost friends because of my approach and I don’t mean to hurt anyone, but I just blurt stuff out…”
Her comment was such a gift for me as someone who is so confrontation-shy that I’ll agonize about something for what seems like years before I’ll attempt to approach it. With her, I know I can say “hey, that comment hurt my feelings, just wanted to put that out there…”
And why can’t it be that way with all friends? I have some friends who are more sensitive, and defensive, and I feel exhausted when I think about trying to approach a topic the right way. But why does it have to be that way?
I’d like to think that with the friends I have, though each is different, our friendship is strong enough to say, “I want to talk about this and it might be hard.” and I think part of being able to do that is recognizing in yourself what your needs are in a friendship, and what you want to give in a friendship.
I’ve been stuck in my ways, convinced that it’s better to just vent to my mom about my hurts and frustrations about a friend rather than approach that friend. But I’m not in high school anymore. I’m a grown adult, and I want to treat my relationships as such. I want to be able to voice my concerns, and feel good about the way I do so. Sometimes, though it’s hard or scary, we just need 30 seconds of bravery to bring up the conversation, and then dive right in.
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Here is my approach for how to bring up difficult topics with friends:
1. I do it in a calm, neutral setting.
Don’t do it out at a bar after a few drinks, don’t do it in a crowd, don’t do it in a stressful moment or when you’re about to leave…try to set it up in an environment where you can both have space to talk.
Also, try not to do it over text. Face-to-face confrontation is scary, but over-text-conversation leaves so much room for misinterpretation and bigger hurts.
It’s hard to read the person’s tone, and it’s hard to explain that way. If you aren’t able to do it face-to-face, at least have a phone call. I know our generation doesn’t always love talking on the phone. But feeling awkward for 20 minutes is better than getting more and more upset reading texts and furiously typing retorts.
2. Second, check yourself for phrasing.
It’s easy to get defensive, and it’s easy to bring up all the past hurts ever.
That’s not helpful…try to focus on recent issues. Approach things such as, ” I want to talk to you about something, but it’s hard to bring up.”
Use phrases like, ” I felt this way when this happened,” rather than, ” when you did this, you really hurt me.”
It’s a little gentler, and when you say “I feel” it helps bring back the emotion to a central place. And it’s a little less accusatory than saying “you did this.”
At the end of the day, everyone is dealing with their own stuff and their own feelings, and often things may happen that they don’t even realize is hurtful.
3. You also have to ask yourself: is this friendship worth fighting for?
Do I care about or respect this person to work this out? If the answer is “yes,” you know you have to work at the relationship and have the hard conversation.
And if the answer is still “no,” ask yourself “how do I want to handle this? How can I approach this and feel good about how I’ve worked through this even if I no longer want this person in my life?”
Not all friendships will be best friendships, not all friendships will last forever, but we only get one life and I think it’s worth it to be our best selves for all of it.
4. Addressing the concern.
Now, you may be asking yourself, “what if my difficult topic isn’t hurt feelings but worrying about my friend for his/her behavior or his/her partner, etc.” That is equally as tough.
I would say, use the same rules. Bring the topic up gently and with the clarification that you’re only saying this because you care.
I know if I was dating someone who was not good to me and I didn’t realize it myself, I’d want my friends to say, “hey, I don’t think this person is that nice to you, you deserve better…” but it will of course be hard to hear.
Or if I have a habit that’s unhealthy, there’s a chance I either haven’t recognized it or am too afraid to ask for help. That’s when I want my friends to be there for me, to help me when I can’t ask, to care when it feels too hard to love myself.
5. This type of conversation takes practice.
Be gentle with yourself, and do your best to approach the conversation the way you wish someone approach you if you were in the reverse situation.
We aren’t perfect, we’re human, but we can be great humans or we can be not-so-great humans. The choice is yours on how you want to be.
Remember that our friends are our friends for a reason. Those reasons are worth thinking about when you’re getting ready to talk to someone about something difficult.