How to Have Tough Talks With Your Family

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on August 24, 2021
4 min read

Typically, your family members are people that know you for the duration of your life. They are people that you rely on, love, and see regularly. Because of this proximity, there will be times in your life where you may need to have a difficult conversation with a family member. 

Maybe this is just a conversation about cleaning dishes in the sink more frequently or perhaps it could be about finances or something more severe. Luckily, you do not have to solely rely on yourself. There are tips and tricks for making these difficult conversations flow more easily.

Here are some helpful ideas for having challenging conversations with your family.

  • Preparation. Think about what you are going to say in advance. Also, remember past conversations you may have had with them. Remember if there are any sore spots for your family member and be considerate. Finally, strategically think of the best way to enter into whatever it is you want to talk about based on your past experiences.
  • Cultivate positivity. Going into a conversation with negative expectations will only hinder you. Instead, attempt to envision the way the conversation would go if you lived in a perfect world. Envision the relationship or solution you’d like to have by starting this conversation.
  • Find time and space. Agreeing on a time and place to have this conversation ahead of time is very helpful. It allows your family to prepare for a serious discussion and lessens the chances of not being distracted by loud noises or unexpected interruptions.
  • Make a time limit. Time limits can help difficult conversations move along and ensure that they are productive. For example, limit the discussion to an hour and if you need more time, extend it. This is especially true if children are involved.
  • Agree on the terms of the conversation beforehand. Shared ideas of how to keep the conversation positive for everyone can be constructive. Terms like no shouting, interrupting, or personal attacks make the conversation safe for everyone to share.
  • Listen to people when they talk. It can be easy to formulate what you will say next rather than listen to someone as they are speaking. The key to an effective conversation, especially in adverse circumstances, is listening deeply.
  • Practice self-awareness. Watch your mind as you have your difficult conversation. Question your assumptions or reactive thoughts and feelings. Try and take a step back and clearly see the situation for what it is.
  • Know that you could be wrong. Be prepared for the possibility that you could be in the wrong or that your behavior could be contributing to the difficulties.
  • End the conversation gracefully. When it’s time to end the conversation, don’t just abruptly end it. Instead, come up with a summary of the discussion, develop solutions, or decide that you can agree to disagree. Thank them for talking with you and let them know how much you love and appreciate them, even if your conversation was complicated or some points surprised you.

Research into how families communicate has proven that certain families are more predisposed to have specific communication types. Therefore, it can be helpful to learn about these communication styles to best plan a strategy for talking to your family about difficult matters. There are four types of family communication orientation styles. These are:

  • Pluralist orientation. In these types of families, communication is varied, diverse, and full of life. These families love to converse. There can be many different opinions and political ideals that are celebrated within them.
  • Consensual orientation. These types of families value conformity and conversation. They would rather talk about generalized personal matters than have volatile or disruptive conversations. These families don’t like to talk about politics or other divisive topics. Family members may feel tentative to rock the boat lest they disrupt a healthy and loving family.
  • Laissez-faire orientation. Families like this don’t often share much about themselves. They might not even know what political party each member supports. In these families, you need to manage your expectations of how interested your family member is in your personal life.
  • Protective orientation. These families place huge importance on conformity but low priority on the conversation. Anyone who disagrees with the views of the majority risks getting talked down to, lectured, or made fun of. Non-conformists are punished by emotional isolation. It is difficult to express yourself freely in this type of family.

Every family has its sore spots, and some situations are challenging. However, the more you can try and have compassion and awareness for your family members, the better communication you might have. The better communication you have, the better your family bonds will be.