Mental Health
Having Difficult Conversations With Family? Make A Plan

Having Difficult Conversations With Family? Make A Plan

5 min read


Caitlin Harper

The past few years have been hard on many of our relationships. Family and friends have clashed and even parted ways due to political beliefs and differing opinions on social issues. One study found that more than 40% of participants had experienced family estrangement at some point and nearly half of the adults in the United States say they have stopped talking about political and election news with someone as a result of something they said, either in person or online.

While some choose to refrain from discussing politically-charged topics with loved ones, others don’t see that as an option. Especially during the holidays, difficult conversations are often inevitable. It’s important to take care of yourself first and foremost, but it’s just as important to be honest with yourself about whether or not avoiding difficult conversations is going to be healthier for you in the long run.

If you’re ready (or want to be ready) to have difficult conversations with your family, what steps can you take to prepare?

Define your goals for the difficult conversation

A friend of mine argues with his family every time they get together. And every time I see him, I hear about it. One day, I asked him: what is your goal in these conversations? He wasn’t sure what I meant. I said, “What is the point? What do you want to get out of the conversation? What do you want the result to be?”

There are many reasons we argue, and not all of them are great reasons: to persuade, because we’re angry or sad, because we’re trying to make someone accept our viewpoint or simply understand it, and plenty of others. Knowing your reason for having the difficult conversation can help you plan your approach or even decide whether you’re going to have the conversation in the first place.

When my friend was still angry, he said his goal was to show his parents how wrong they were. “If you come at them the way you have been, do you think they’re ever going to just flip a switch and agree with you?” I asked. He admitted that they would not. When it came down to it, he said he was most frustrated by the fact that his parents got most of their misleading information from Facebook, and he thought they would be better off if they started to build some media literacy.

You’re probably not going to change someone’s mind in one conversation and it’s very unlikely that you’ll sway someone to your way of thinking by arguing or fighting. It’s best to approach difficult conversations with curiosity and a willingness to understand, but if your intent is to truly persuade someone in the long run, two good tactics are validating and influencing.


You do not need to agree with someone to validate their feelings! Validation simply means, “I hear you.” All you’re doing is accepting their individual experience and saying that their emotions are understandable. You might not understand or agree with their emotions, but it’s understandable that they might be having these emotions considering their personal experience.

Phrases like, “I can see how you think that,“ or “It makes sense that you’re upset,” or “It’s totally understandable that you reacted that way,” make the other person feel heard. A phrase like, “I can see how you think that,” might sound like you’re agreeing, but you’re not! You’re understanding. Then you can share your feelings or experience. It's difficult to discuss things in abstraction, so be sure to center your points around things people can easily process, like stories of how you or a friend are affected by a certain problem or policy.

If you invalidate someone’s emotions by saying what they’re feeling or thinking is simply wrong (and then implying or outright stating that they should replace their thoughts and emotions with yours), it’s very unlikely that they will listen to you.

Your genuine attention and neutrality will also encourage people to elaborate. For every statement the other person makes, mirror back what they’ve said to validate that you understand them correctly. Through their elaboration, you can find new angles to help in your persuasion, if that’s your goal.


Influencing is especially helpful if you’re taking a more passive approach or if conversations often end in heated arguments. Instead of engaging someone directly on a particular topic or using words that might trigger them, you can inject the subject of your difficult conversation into normal conversation, or package the difficult topic into a more neutral package.

With the friend I mentioned earlier, instead of arguing with his parents about specific topics as they come up, he could share stories from reliable news outlets with them when they aren’t arguing to introduce other news sources and subjects in a calmer environment.

You can also counter negative statements with positive ones related to the topic you’re discussing. When you are talking about political issues, you are more likely to convince people of something if you point out the positives of something rather than appealing to their fear. Don’t try to tell someone all the negative outcomes of trusting in a certain ideology. Instead, tell them all the positives of believing in a different ideology. A simple text with a link to a positive or neutral story and a note like, “I thought this was interesting,” or, “I remember you said you like ____ and this reminded me of you,” is a genuine way to expose someone to a different way of thinking.

Set boundaries with yourself in advance

Sometimes what’s going on is so difficult that your boundary is to take time away from your family or stop communicating, and that’s okay.

Boundaries can look like how long you will let the conversation go on or where you draw the line with what the other person might say. It can also be the speed or heat of the conversation. It sounds counterintuitive, but talking less, listening more, and asking the other person questions actually gives you power in a conversation because you control how fast the conversation progresses and the direction the conversation takes. Talking less and listening more can actually help you stay calm as well.

Talking to a therapist can help you prepare for hard conversations

A therapist can help you with boundary-setting, coping strategies, self-awareness, and more. They can work with you to see the big picture and ask you questions that can help you develop clarity around your situation. Many times, the sense that we’re stuck in a situation we don’t want to be in or the feeling that something is off but we don’t know what to do about it can be the first indication that working with a therapist might help.

For many of us, having difficult conversations with family has been a lifelong burden, but you don’t have to cope alone. And if you’re looking for the right therapist for you, MyWellbeing helps therapy-seekers find their perfect match.

Have a self-care practice in place to help you deal with difficult conversations

Difficult conversations are exactly that—difficult! They can take up a lot of mental and emotional energy, so it’s important to practice self care not just afterward, when you’re trying to cool down, but beforehand. Practicing preventative self care can get you in the right headspace before your difficult conversation and make it easier to maintain your boundaries, keep your cool, and know when to walk away.

What will you do beforehand to get yourself into the right mindset? What are the words or phrases your friends or family members use that you know will trigger you and give you your cue to exit the conversation? What will you say to stop the conversation if things get too heated? What will you make available to yourself afterward as a reward for your efforts?

It’s okay to prioritize yourself and your own mental health and it is always okay to leave a conversation. Practice saying phrases out loud, like, “I’m not comfortable talking about this now,” or, “I’d rather not discuss this anymore,” or, “If you’d like to talk about this later, we can try again, but for now, I think we should take a break.” It sounds silly to say them out loud, but they’ll roll off your tongue a lot easier if you’ve practiced.

Things might be starting to look up in the world, but there is plenty of work to do and there will always be difficult conversations. We know it’s tough, but with the right tools, you can maintain your boundaries, create change, and nurture good relationships with those around you, even when you don’t always see eye to eye.

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About the author

Caitlin is an organizational change strategist, advisor, writer, and the founder of Commcoterie, a change management communication consultancy. She helps leaders and the consultants who work with them communicate change for long-lasting impact. Caitlin is a frequent speaker, workshop facilitator, panelist, and podcast guest on topics such as organizational change, internal communication strategy, DEIBA, leadership and learning, management and coaching, women in the workplace, mental health and wellness at work, and company culture. Find out more, including how to work with her, at

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