Difficult conversations—tact or friction

No one ever said it was going to be easy living with other animals of the same species. Even though the process of mutation and natural selection has left us with nimble tongues, fingers, and frontal lobes, real communication is still one of our most difficult challenges. Sometimes it’s the communication channels that are the problem, including families bursting with personality disorders, frustrating iPhone connections, and the fact that Twitter even exists.

But often it’s the topic itself that proves troubling—you know, big stuff like how you want to follow yourdream of quitting your job to create avant garde, singing-animal operas for children (by turning the garage into a theater space and cracking your partner’s nest egg). Or how after the recent, disastrous Thanksgiving dinner, your partner has unilaterally decided to go DEFCON 1 by tossing a dirty bomb onto your mother’s intricately scheduled Christma-hana-kwanza plans—even though the fallout might reach Chernobyl-like levels.

Or maybe the stuff’s even bigger than that—like whether Jr. is ready to take on the responsibility of a dog. Or you want to talk the whole family into going on the caveman diet. Or you’re ready to threaten divorce if your partner can’t learn to move the stinky sponge from the sink to the drying rack!

I’ve learned through trial and error the wrong ways into these hard conversations. You can run (but if you were smart enough to do that you wouldn’t be living in a house with other animals) you can hide (like you have been, you wimp!), or you can find your inner lawyer and come to the negotiating table prepared. Here are some of the ‘frictions’ to avoid.

Calm waters vs. the cannonball

Image this scenario: You’ve just driven home from work, using the precious alone time to concoct an argument for how you can quit your job and still keep the family afloat. Your argument is crystal clear—and you know that in your child-addled world you may not be able to remember it for long. Plus, you’ve managed to trap your partner there in the living room as he or she attempts to decompress from an insane day. You may not get this chance again for weeks. Nothing like the present to hash things out, right? But forget about diving in now; it will only roil the waters—and you might break your neck jackknifing into the shallow end.

Bottled up

Yet, don’t let the pressure get cooking too high, either. Waiting until you have the perfect time and place to talk to your partner—bottling it up until you get there—may make for a more explosive delivery than you’d hoped for, and make your tone too adamant (by which I mean shrill, demanding, or snarly). This can put your partner’s defenses up and ruin any chance for calmer waters.

The happier middle ground involves a little more work at the front end—getting your feet wet with a little planning. And a spoonful of tact. 

Get rid of all distractions and focus

You don’t want the kids around for some of these conversations, but that doesn’t mean you have to go to sleep at 3:00 a.m. (or get up that early, for that matter) to sneak in your little tête-à-tête. Just know that you’ll have to focus your thoughts and then actually sit down and talk as soon as the kids conk out.

When Edna and I needed to have a serious conversation about whether (and how) to remodel the kitchen last summer we kept finding that we were too tired to talk effectively by the time we got Ed, Jr. to bed. Getting up earlier than the kid didn’t seem to work, either, so in the end we set up a Saturday play date with his buddy across the street, and I made coffee while Edna walked him over there. A solid hour of completely uninterrupted time while we were both fresh meant that we got the ‘whether’ out of the way (figuring out that we could afford to do it) and later side conversations about ‘how’ were easier to sneak into our normal routine.

Make a list—check it twice

Remember that part about bottling things up? One solution is to get your issues out of your head and into your digital device or paper. Then you can look over your list later, in a potentially calmer state of mind, and edit it to include only the most essential elements.

This list can act as a crutch if you’re easily rattled during intense, emotional conversations, since you can refer to it to remember all the points you wanted to get to. And if you degrade into a tit-for-tat about who cleaned the litter box last—or who can’t seem to get the dental floss from the sink to the wastebasket—it can act as a map to get you back to where you really needed to get to: if you can really afford that pet project of the singing dog-and-cat version of Madame Butterfly.

Sean Toren loves living the full catastrophe in Minneapolis with his wife and son. He can be contacted at editor@mnparent.com with thoughts or suggestions.