Tips for Approaching Difficult Conversations with People You Love
With the holidays around the corner, many people are experiencing a combination of excitement and nostalgia for the festive season along with the sting of unresolved or unexpressed challenges with people we love. For some, this can lead to a sense of anxiety or dysphoria as the holidays approach due to feeling stuck and uncertain about how to proceed.
Saying or hearing the words, “We need to talk,” often provokes feelings of uneasiness, mainly because these words acknowledge the elephant in the room: Something is unresolved and needs to be addressed, and because it is unresolved it remains uncertain. Uncertainty is an emotional state we as humans are not huge fans of, so our natural inclination might be to respond with pre-emptive defensiveness or the belief that we are right in an effort to create certainty and stability, and perhaps also preserve our egos. Add to this the fact that we all have beliefs about conflict and confrontation that were shaped by our past experiences and cultural backgrounds, so for many people these words might also elicit feelings of fear, dread, and perhaps the tendency to avoid conflict in order to keep the peace.
But what if speaking or hearing these words could be reframed as a need for connection, closeness, and deeper understanding? Oftentimes we need to share our perspective, clear the air, or let someone know how we feel in order to engage in our relationships with greater authenticity and richness, and having difficult conversations – whether we are the confronter or the one being confronted – is a crucial element to relational depth.
If there’s a difficult conversation or issue on your mind that you’ve been avoiding, whether you choose to approach it before the holidays or mentally bookmark it for a later date, consider the following tips for effectively and respectfully expressing your point of view:
So much of a difficult conversation is how you prepare for it ahead of time. Try to remain reasonable and balanced in your expectations and let go of wording and rewording things in your head ahead of time with the goal of convincing the other person you’re right. Instead, ask yourself these questions to gain greater clarity into your perspective:
- What is the purpose or goal of this conversation?
- What is my ideal outcome? What are my wants and needs?
- What am I feeling about this situation as a whole?
- What part of the conflict or issue am I responsible for?
- Is there anything from my past being triggered by the current issue? If so, what?
- What assumptions do I have about the other person’s intentions or perspective? What might they be thinking and feeling?
- How am I feeling about having this conversation? How might the other person be feeling?
Practice techniques for self-soothing and centering ahead of time, that way they can be leveraged in the moment when you need them the most. If you’re feeling nervous about approaching the conversation or find yourself playing it out in your head, that’s a great time to practice mindfulness, deep breathing, or grounding techniques, which allow you to acknowledge your emotions and return to the present moment.
Set a Time and Place
Neuroscience research on multitasking has shown that it’s nearly impossible to attend to multiple things at once, so state your need to discuss something and work with the other person to find a good time when neither of you will be distracted:
“I’d like to talk to you about ______ and am wondering if you have time on Tuesday evening for us to sit down together.”
It’s also important to consider the physical space you’re in when approaching difficult or sensitive topics. Whenever possible, try to schedule your conversation for a quiet space that is relatively private to reduce any environmental distractions. If finding time and space is difficult, try not to become discouraged. For things that are important to address, finding the right time and space can be worth the wait. That said, there is no “perfect” time or situation that will guarantee the other person will have a positive reception to the conversation.
Get Started by Raising the Issue
This is the part many people often struggle with the most because raising a concern entails direct communication, emotional vulnerability, and the potential for conflict. In addition, many people are concerned about likeability and may also fear the uncertainty of the other person’s reactions. Consider the following strategies as you broach the subject you’ll be discussing:
- Approach the other person with curiosity, openness, and a collaborative mindset.
- Be clear and use specific examples while avoiding blaming or using accusatory language. State what you notice and try not to use absolutes like “always” and “never” as you give examples.
- Communicate from the place of feeling. Try to give the other person the benefit of the doubt by acknowledging the difference between intention and impact: “I felt _____ when you _____. It’s likely this wasn’t your intention, however this was the impact on me and I wanted to let you know so we could clear the air.”
If you become nervous, practice self-soothing and centering.
Seek to Understand and Collaborate
- Consider the following tips for working towards mutual understanding, respect, and resolution:
- Elicit the other person’s perspective and listen without interrupting.
- Acknowledge their experience. This is different than agreeing with them. Show that you understand what they’re saying: “What I hear you saying is _____. Is that correct? It’s important for me to really get where you’re coming from, even if we don’t see eye-to-eye.”
- Own your role in the conflict, even if it’s small: “When you said _____ I felt hurt and could tell I became defensive so I don’t think I was entirely open to what you were saying. I’ll try to be more open in the future and let you know how I feel in the moment.”
- Redirect the conversation if starts to go off the rails. “I think we might be getting into the weeds here and would like to refocus on the issue at hand.” Center yourself and breathe.
- If the conversation gets heated, it’s okay to set boundaries by agreeing to revisit the issue with cooler heads: “I’m not comfortable with the direction this conversation is going and think it’s hard for us to have a productive dialogue while we’re both so upset. Let’s revisit this later.”
- Again, use your self-soothing and centering techniques as needed.
- Start by asking for the other person’s ideas: “I think we have a solid understanding of where we differ. Based on what we discussed, what are your thoughts are on how we can move forward and work through this issue together?”
- Again, listen to their ideas openly and without interrupting.
- When sharing your ideas, use collaborative language whenever possible (e.g., “we/us” instead of “you/me”).
Wrap It Up
Recap what you’ve discussed, including solutions you’ve come to and areas where you may have agreed to disagree.
Express your appreciation for taking the time to discuss something that’s important to you, and share how doing so has impacted you: “I’m really glad we took the time to discuss this today. Even though we agreed to disagree on some things I feel like we each better understand where the other is coming from. This gives me hope that we can continue to discuss difficult things in the future so they don’t negatively impact our relationship.”
For especially difficult topics or if a conversation did not go as you hoped, it will be important to enlist the help of your support system. Reach out and debrief with a trusted friend or your partner. Again, practice self-care strategies and give yourself time and space to tend for yourself as you process and integrate this experience.
The Flip Side of the Coin
Sometimes people approach us with difficult topics and we find ourselves having negative reactions to being confronted. We may become nervous, defensive, or rigid in our thought process, and may sometimes find ourselves triggered by past challenges. If you hear the words, “We need to talk,” the very same strategies described above can be leveraged to remain receptive, calm, and self-aware when someone else raises a concern.
If you find yourself struggling to approach someone in your life about an issue that’s important to you, or having difficulty when approached by someone else, counseling can help you dig deeper into the experiences that have shaped your attitudes about conflict and assertiveness, learn skills for self-soothing, and strategize a healthy path forward. Fill out our contact form or call us at 773-512-4992 to find out how the therapists at Bergen Counseling Center can help you prepare to have difficult conversations with your loved ones.
Working from Home
Imagine—it’s Monday morning, and you wake up to the harsh sound of your alarm clock before reluctantly rolling out of bed. You make breakfast, grab some coffee, and then commute to work, which, in this case, happens to mean walking to your computer 10 feet away. The benefits of working from home are obvious—you can sleep in later by shortening your commute, and thus allot more time to be productive. Plus, who wouldn’t want to work in their pajamas?
Working from home is becoming increasingly favored because of the many benefits for both companies and their employees. The drawbacks of merging the home and the workplace, however, have tended to receive less attention. Working from home presents unique challenges, and it’s important to plan accordingly if your job allows (or requires) you to work from the comforts of your home. Here are some things to consider:
For many, commuting to work feels arduous; indeed, this is one reason why working from home is such an attractive idea. However, the ritual of beginning the work day is actually an important psychological factor in helping us to enter “work mode.” Consider the first thing you do upon arriving at the office each day. Few of us walk to our desk, sit down, and immediately begin working; rather, most describe the consistent habit of stopping by the corner store for a cup of coffee, or swinging by a coworker’s desk to chat. We might organize our desk, refresh ourselves on our to-do list from the day before, or seek direction from a supervisor before diving into a project. Many can attest that skipping these rituals can leave them feeling “off” for the morning. This is because these things serve as signals that cue other productive habits and can help adjust our mindset back into “work mode.”
So what happens when our work context becomes the same as our day-to-day context? What happens when instead of working at our desk, we work at the breakfast table, or in bed, or on the couch? Our brain receives multiple other signals which cue a variety of behaviors that are not work related, which can seriously impede our productivity or our ability to get into the work that we’re doing. To this end, those consistently working from home should try to set aside a specific space that is specifically designated for work. This should be a space where work-related behaviors occur, and other behaviors are limited—a cup of coffee is fine, but avoid eating your lunch or chatting on the phone there when possible. This will help ensure that you establish new rituals, and, in turn, allows your brain to associate this new context specifically with work.
In the same way that entering work provides us with an important change of context, leaving work cues our brain to shift gears and let go of the work day in order to return home. Working from home, however, blurs this boundary in such a way that many who work from home report feeling as though they’re “always on.” This is difficult not only for the person working from home, but for others in the home as well—especially kids. Children may not understand why their mom is at home, but not as easily available to play. This blurred boundary becomes confusing, and can lead to conflict when expectations are violated.
Additionally, the person working from home may feel compelled to continue working after the work day is actually over. Without physically leaving the work space, it can be difficult to psychologically “leave” work; we may tell ourselves “well, I’ll just finish this one project,” or “If this conference call runs long this time, it’s ok—I’m already at home.” And indeed, sometimes we may find ourselves staying late at work in the same way we may get “stuck” at the office from time to time. However, we should be careful about the message that this sends to our other coworkers, our supervisors, and ourselves. Just because we work from home, doesn’t mean that our home should always be a workplace. It is critical to retain a separation in order to maintain a good work/life balance.
Camaraderie, Collaboration, and Creativity
An additional challenge that comes with working from home or telecommuting is that the day-to-day can quickly begin to feel lonely. Making friends within the context of a shared office space helps keep camaraderie high, and can provide a sense of support during particularly challenging times at work. Humans are social creatures, and the everyday interactions with familiar faces creates a distinctly different work environment that one in which we are alone at home for the majority of the day. Beyond this, creativity and capacity for collaboration is jeopardized when you work alone; opportunities for brainstorming or informally bouncing ideas off of each other decrease significantly, and must be specifically sought out when needed.
To this end, those who work from home should be intentional about continuing to cultivate working relationships with their coworkers. “Out of sight, out of mind” should not be the rule of thumb for telecommuters; rather, those working from home may find benefits from using video chat to remain included in meetings, or choosing phone calls over emails when communicating with coworkers. Additionally, extra energy may need to be put toward maintaining social relationships—both in and out of work. Making plans with coworkers or other friends to connect outside of work can disrupt the monotony that can easily begin to creep in if we aren’t careful.
Remember Your Mental Health
The areas of concern above bring added challenges to things that are already challenging for many—work/life balance, conflict, negotiating expectations at work and at home, setting boundaries with coworkers and supervisors, mitigating the effects of isolation, maintaining social relationships, and generally striving toward a life that feels satisfying, rewarding, and balanced. The extra stress in these areas may not individually be enough to strongly impact your mental health, but together their effects may feel more prominent. It’s important to continue to check in with yourself from time to time to ensure that you’re living the life you want to live.
The Bergen Counseling Center is excited to announce a free 1 hour mindfulness workshop at our Ravenswood Chicago location. The mindfulness workshop will take place on Saturday, November 4th from 10am-11am at our Ravenswood office location and is open to both current clients and the general public. The workshop will be led by Bergen Counseling Center staff psychologist and resident mindfulness guru, Dr. Carolyn Versical. Dr. Versical will introduce the principles and benefits of practicing mindfulness, as well as, walk through practical mindfulness exercises to implement in daily life. This workshop is perfect for both those who have been curious about mindfulness and also those who want to refresh and reconnect and refocus on their present experience.
Space is limited! If you are interested in attending the free mindfulness workshop, contact Dr. Carolyn Versical to reserve your spot via email or phone. Please feel free to click the link below to download and distribute the mindfulness workshop flyer. Come join us on Saturday, November 4th to learn more about mindfulness and how it can contribute to your health and well-being.
What: Free Mindfulness Workshop
Where: Bergen Counseling Center – 1945 W. Wilson Suite 6113, Chicago, IL 60640
When: Saturday, November 4th 10am-11am
“I just wish I could be happier.” Many clients who come in for therapy describe their life as one that is lacking—lost relationships, missed opportunities, or even just not enough time. Other clients may be able to point to many happy moments, but still find themselves feeling disconsolate for reasons they cannot understand. The pursuit of happiness looks different for each of us, but is common across the human experience. Whether trying something new or diving into an old hobby, we generally seek to secure so form of happiness to bolster our day-to-day lives. Yet despite this ubiquitous search, many of us struggle to find what we’re looking for.
Fortunately, many studies have demonstrated that there is one key ingredient that can lead to a happier lifestyle—gratitude. Gratitude has been shown to be a significant predictor of altruism, resilience to trauma and stress, improved relationships, and decreased feelings of loneliness. Naturally, these changes have ripple effects to our sleeping habits, our grades—even our immune system! This, in part, is because being grateful requires a mental shift; instead of lamenting the things we lack, we are adopting a positive outlook by noting those things for which we are grateful. This small change can often begin to hit the “reset button” on our mood, helping us to pull out of the negative nosedive into which our brain’s autopilot may have fallen, restoring some balance and positivity to our mental state.
Gratitude is an easy thing to express, but all too often, we only go through the motions. We briefly thank the person who gives us directions or offer a half-hearted nod to the person who holds the door open, but these small gestures lack the “behind the scenes” piece that makes gratitude so powerful. Instead, try practicing gratitude through one of the following methods:
1. Start a Gratitude Journal
One great way of practicing gratitude is to literally list out a few things for which we’re grateful in a gratitude journal. A gratitude journal can be anything you like—a notebook, a note on your phone, or even just some scrap paper (nobody said you had to keep the journal after you’ve written it! Having a journal to reflect on later is great, but the exercise itself is most important.). Sometimes taking the time to sit down and job down a short list or paragraph’s worth of things for which we’re grateful not only helps us to brainstorm the things for which we’re most grateful, but it also helps us get into the habit of mindfully noticing those things to begin with. Gratitude journals can feel awkward to begin, but the process can be as involved or simple as you like–you can start from scratch, or find are prompts online to get your started. There’s no wrong way to approach the exercise.
2. Take a Gratitude Walk
Try this—look around you right now and notice what you see. Sunshine outside? Pictures of your kids or loved ones? Are you at your desk at a job that you earned? Are there people around you who care about you? Sometimes it’s helpful to physically stand up and take a short walk, observing the world around you and looking for things for which you feel grateful. This can an especially meaningful way of turning a sour mood around because it combines mental exercise with physical; by standing up and taking a short walk, you can symbolically step away from the sadness or frustration and attempt to turn your mood around by trying to adopt a positive outlook and connecting with your feelings of gratitude.
3. Write a Letter of Gratitude
Another useful exercise is to write a letter to someone to whom you feel especially grateful. Set aside 5-10 minutes to just write without worrying about grammar, clarity, or spelling; this letter isn’t one you’ll deliver (unless you want to!). Rather, this letter is an opportunity for you to express your gratitude to this person without holding anything back. Many people choose to write to a friend, a relative, or a loved one, but sometimes the most powerful gratitude letters are ones that are written to ourselves. Taking the time to thank ourselves for the little things we’ve accomplished or the things that we’ve done for which we’re most proud can grant us the credit that many of us may not be in a habit of doing. Did you take steps toward your goals today? Did you do anything to take care of yourself? Those of us who focus on achieving perfection may overlook small steps toward progress, but we deserve recognition for those too. If nothing else, you can express gratitude to yourself for caring about your happiness and emotional state to make it a priority by setting aside 5-10 minutes to practice some self-kindness.
There are many others ways to connect with our feelings of gratitude, but they all require some mindful intentionality. We must have the ability and the awareness to recognize when our mood is starting to take turns for the worse, and have the motivation to step outside of that and practice feeling gratitude in spite of the negativity–in some ways, this is the most important time. Doing this on our own isn’t always easy—we struggle to connect with the feelings because we’re just so sad, or our life feels in such disarray that we can’t seem to identify things for which we’re grateful.
Counseling is a great way to discuss these things in much more depth and detail, as well as explore other ways of self-kindness that can help us lead happier, more fulfilling lives. If you’re thinking about counseling, consider reaching out for a brief 15-minute consult by contacting Bergen Counseling Center at 773-512-4992 and feel grateful to yourself for caring enough about your happiness and wellness to take that first step in connecting with someone who can help.
You’ve probably heard a lot about mindfulness these days, but what exactly is mindfulness? Can mindfulness apply to our relationship with food? What is mindful eating? Think about it: When was the last time you sat down and ate a meal with no distractions? Not while driving in your car, walking to the train, working at your desk, watching TV, scrolling through social media, reading the paper, or trying to feed the kids before inhaling something – anything! – while rushing to the next thing? For many of us, it might be hard to think of the last time we enjoyed a meal or a snack with a sense of calm, a sense of presence, and a sense of awareness. Just like the rush and “busyness” of daily life is instrumental in perpetuating disconnection from others, so too does it form the foundation for our disconnection from food, from our bodies, and from our underlying emotional worlds.
What is Mindful Eating?
Exploring, understanding, and appreciating the nuances of our relationship with food is instrumental to exploring, understanding, and appreciating our relationship with our physical, mental, and emotional selves. No matter how we grew up, we all were raised with certain subtle and overt messages around food and mealtime, messages that were sometimes at odds with our natural bodily cues. A prime example is the “clean plate club” message many children receive from their parents, which had the unintentional impact of encouraging eating past the point of satiation. Because our relationship with food is complex, and because food is essential to our survival on a daily basis, developing a healthy relationship with food, including a present-oriented mindset while eating, can be a transformative experience that impacts a number of different and perhaps unexpected areas of our lives.
The Evolution of Eating
Historically speaking, the pursuit and consumption of food has been an inherently social experience, one in which the presence of others was both inter-personally enriching and necessary for survival, particularly in the context of nomadic hunter-gatherer societies. Journalist and author Michael Pollan, who writes about the intersection of food and culture, has often noted that Americans are spending less and less time cooking their own meals and enjoying food together either as a family unit or with friends. Additionally, in 2015 the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that of all developed countries, Americans cook the least and eat the fastest, with lack of available time being cited as the underlying reason. Naturally, it makes sense that with a cultural shift towards busier lives, our meals have become both quick and increasingly isolated. However, by saving time through grab-and-go meals, aren’t we also sacrificing deep connection with the food we eat, with our bodies, with each other, and even with ourselves? Taken to an extreme, this disconnection from the mental, emotional, physical, and social aspects of food consumption may perpetuate patterns of overeating by laying the foundation for mindless consumption, even going so far as to perpetuate the unconscious use of food as a coping mechanism or numbing agent for challenging emotional states.
Physician and mindful-eating speaker Michelle May, MD, outlines a framework for better understanding one way in which our relationship with food can derail. In her books and workshops, Dr. May outlines what she calls the Eat – Repent – Repeat cycle. In this paradigm, mindless overeating leads to negative emotional states, which lead to vows to change eating behaviors, which then over time and without concrete strategies for change leads to a repetition of mindless overeating behaviors.
Eating is a Sensory Experience
Just like our moods and emotions, eating is a sensory activity. By tuning into all five of your senses as well as your thoughts and feelings while eating, you can learn to incorporate a present-oriented mindset into your mealtimes, thus enhancing your enjoyment of and appreciation for the foods you eat, even going so far as to connecting more deeply with yourself on an emotional level. The following exercise will take you through some questions aimed at engaging your senses, thoughts, and feelings, in order to promote mindful eating:
Mindful Eating Exercises
Explore Your Senses
What does my food look like? What are the colors and textures present on my plate?
What does the environment around me look like? Did I clear the table before eating and set myself a place? Am I sitting amidst clutter? How does my physical environment impact my enjoyment of my meal or snack?
Are there any sounds in my environment as I’m eating? Do these sounds in any way enhance or detract from enjoying my meal? If so, how?
As I take a bite and begin chewing, what does it sound like? Does my food sound crunchy or is it quieter because it’s soft? Can I hear my teeth, tongue, and saliva as I bite and chew?
What does my food smell like? Are there any sense-memories being triggered by these aromas?
What does my food or eating utensil feel like in my hands? What textures and temperatures are present in my food as I begin biting and chewing?
Engage the five main tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami/savory. What flavors are present in my food, and where on my tongue to I notice them? Do the flavors change as I continue chewing?
Engage Your Thoughts
As I eat, is my mind preoccupied? Am I thinking of past conversations or tasks, or planning what will come once I’m done with my meal or snack?
Does the food itself remind me of another time, place, event, or interaction? Am I recalling fond (or not so fond) memories?
If my mind has strayed, am I able to acknowledge these thoughts and gently remind myself to return to the sensory experience of my food?
Tune Into Your Feelings
Do I feel excited about the meal or snack I am about to eat? Am I proud about making healthy choices? Do I feel ashamed for indulging in less healthy options? Am I eager to enjoy something that’s a treat? Where in my body do I experience these feelings, and what sensations do I notice?
As I eat, what am I feeling? Am I present and enjoying the sensory experience of my food? Am I bored or restless? Do I feel pulled to turn on the TV, read a magazine, check my email, or scroll through social media to distract myself?
If I’m feeling pulled to distract myself, what is the discomfort lying beneath this? Are there painful experiences, judgmental thoughts, anxiety, or shame about what I am eating? Do I feel awkward or uneasy?
If pain, judgment, anxiety, or shame arises, how can I navigate these challenging experiences with awareness and self-compassion? What might I need either from myself or from someone else to help with this?
You might be surprised by what comes up as you pose these questions and challenge yourself to encounter mealtime with intentionality and increased mental/emotional awareness. True, it may be difficult at first to resist the pull towards habitual distractibility, and the space created through mindful self-awareness may feel uncomfortable. But creating this space allows the richness of the present moment to unfold, complete with robust sensations as well as increased emotional connection with our loved ones and with ourselves. And remember, if you find yourself or someone you love struggling at this intersection of food and emotions, mindfulness-based psychotherapy can help unpack this complex relationship so you can start building skills to improve your connection with food and ultimately with yourself. All of the therapists at Bergen Counseling Center are trained in mindfulness techniques, fill out the contact form on the right sidebar to learn more about how we can help you incorporate mindfulness into your daily life.