Navigating Through Difficult Conversations

Most people have experienced times when attempts to resolve a disagreement only seems to make the problem worse. During these times, it seems that no matter what is said, how much the partners try to explain themselves to each other, or ask the other partner why they are so upset, it just feels like adding gasoline to the flames. Partners may feel overwhelmed, frustrated, agitated, and stuck. If this continues long enough, partners say things to each other that may feel real in the moment, but later regret, and eventually just shut down and go their separate ways. Instead of experiencing resolution, the partners are often left feeling helpless, exhausted, alone, and sad.

As a couple therapist, I have seen this in my office a hundred times. Couples who love and care about each other suddenly find themselves embroiled in a conflict that escalates out of control despite their best efforts. It is tragic to watch because in their attempt to bond with each other and resolve an issue, they employ a series of communication strategies that does just the opposite. It pushes the other person away. If this pattern happens enough, each partner will begin to develop a layer of ‘emotional scar tissue’ that makes full reconciliation even more difficult to achieve.

Several years ago, I developed a set of ‘rules of engagement’ for couples when they engage in an emotional conversation that I call “Emotional Hygiene in Communication”, or simply “Emotional Hygiene”. This set of guidelines helps couples navigate through difficult conversations without escalation and allows each partner to remain engaged. The basic premise is that when couples feel as though their partner is emotionally engaged and fully present with them during difficult conversations, each partner tends to feel heard and held in safe space. When this happens, couples can negotiate meaningful and satisfying solutions to their disagreements. On the other hand, when couples feel as though their partner is not engaged and fully present with them during difficult conversations, their distress levels can escalate very quickly, conflict tends to become heated, and finding meaningful and satisfying resolution can become almost impossible. So, the intent of emotional hygiene in communication is to find ways of interacting with each other during times of distress that allow partners to remain actively engaged with each other.



When you ‘explore’, you are engaging your partner in an effort to better understand what they are experiencing. So, if your partner says, “I am very upset”, you can engage them by asking questions such as: “What is going on?” or “What is making you upset?” With questions like these, your partner feels as though you are interested in their experience, and you are fully present.

When you ‘explain’, you are disconnecting from your partners experience and getting into a contest to see whose perspective is the ‘correct one’. This is a very easy trap to fall into. If your partner says, “I am very upset”, and you respond with statements like “well, all I was saying was…”, or “why did you get upset?”, you are emotionally disconnecting with your partner and putting them on the defensive. This usually leads to an escalation in conflict until one or both partners simply shut down when it becomes clear that the conversation is not going in a positive direction.

So, the key to this rule of emotional hygiene is to put your attention into the heart of your partner in an effort to understand what they are experiencing without judgment, and simply allowing them to have their experience.



When your partner is upset, there is a tendency to name the emotion for them. So, if your partner looks upset, there is a tendency to say something like “Wow. Aren’t you in a bad mood?” or during a disagreement say something like “why are you so angry?” Most of us have made comments like this and have seen what happens. Does it make the other person feel better or worse?  Almost invariably, when you make a statement about what our partner is feeling, it escalates the situation.

The rule here is to observe and explore. Asking “are you in a bad mood right now” feels very different than “why are you in such a bad mood?” Saying “you look very upset right now, are you angry?” feels very different than asking “why are you angry?”  Again, this is all about remaining engaged. When you observe that your partner appears upset and want to understand what they are feeling, you are engaging them. When you name the emotion for them, your partner doesn’t feel engaged. They tend to feel judged.



This communication technique is all about sharing with your partner what you are experiencing in the moment. In other words, if you were to stick an emotional thermometer into your gut right now, what would it read?  Would it read “stressed”? “sad”? “angry”? “hurt”? “lonely”?

Communicating your emotional state in a completely non-judgmental and non-accusatory way as though you were reporting the temperature of the room can be very helpful in communicating to your partner that you are present and engaged. The non-judgmental and non-accusatory part is very important. If your partner is telling you about something you did to make them upset, responding with a statement like “I feel very bad about hurting you” or “I didn’t realize how much you were affected by what I did” can be very helpful in communicating to them that you are fully engaged and present.  The same is true if your partner tells you about difficulties they are having at work. If you just state what your emotional thermometer is reading, you may say something like “Wow. I can feel myself get tense just hearing about what you are going through.”

What you want to avoid is making statements that assign judgment or blame for what you are feeling. So, unhelpful responses would be things like “I hate hearing about your work because you always make me feel so stressed out”, or “Oh yeah, way to make me feel bad about myself”. Statements like these are not helpful in keeping both partners engaged with each other.

There are other communication techniques that are helpful in keeping partners emotionally engaged with each other during times of distress, but if couples implement these three rules of emotional hygiene in their communication with each other, they will find it much easier to avoid escalation during conflict and to find meaningful and satisfactory solutions when navigating through difficult conversations. The key to all of this is to find ways to stay engaged and feel safe.


Blog by Todd Berntson, MA, LPC
Photo by Maksim Goncharenok via Pexels


Todd specializes in couples therapy and practices our of our White Bear Lake office.
Wild Tree Wellness offers holistic, mind-body focused mental health therapy in Hastings, Eagan, White Bear Lake, and Saint Paul, Minnesota.