How to Support Your Partner During a Difficult Conversation

woman resting hand on man's shoulder


Understanding how to support your partner during a difficult conversation can build trust, confidence, and connection between partners, family members, or friends. Although the conversation will still be difficult, it will be more likely to lead to a positive outcome when those involved feel heard and supported.

No matter how hard we may try, there’s just no way to completely avoid having difficult conversations from time to time. This is simply the nature of being a human being that interacts with other human beings.

Sometimes we are directly involved in situations that create the need for a difficult conversation. Other times, we are there just to be a strong shoulder as someone works through a problem. Either way, there are positive things we can say and do to help move the conversation forward.

Just as easily, saying and doing the wrong thing can make a bad situation worse.

It’s important to build our interpersonal skills so that we know how to give support when it’s needed. At the same time, we need to be aware that we can support those we love without agreeing with them or sacrificing our own feelings, thoughts, and needs.

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married couple looking at each other and having a difficult conversation


How to Support Your Partner During a Difficult Conversation:

Face The Issue Head-On

When encountering a difficult situation, our first response is often to try to change the subject or otherwise avoid the issue. This won’t solve the problem or heal the hurt that caused the situation in the first place. It does nothing to improve things and may cause pain to another if they feel they have been marginalized by your avoidance.

It’s better to take a deep breath, gather your thoughts, and face the difficulty now rather than later.

It’s better to get everything out in the open.

“Because no matter how hard a conversation is, I know that on the other side of that difficult conversation lies peace.”

Shonda Rhimes

Define The Problem Clearly

Make the effort to identify the specific problem that has created the need for this conversation. Sometimes it’s hard, when you are in the middle of a difficult time, to be objective and see the issues clearly.

It can be helpful to take some time alone to determine precisely what the problem is before broaching it with your partner.

Take As Much Time As Needed

Difficult conversations cannot be rushed. Everyone involved must be given the time to open up about the issue in a way they are comfortable with. People may not naturally move at the same pace, particularly when negative emotions are involved. Be respectful if your partner is not keeping to the same pace you are.

Allow the conversation to come to a natural conclusion. Don’t cut it off abruptly before everything that needs to be expressed has been, or you run the risk of having the same conversation all over again in the near future.

Give the conversation all the time it needs.

Stay Focused on the Current Issue

Stay focused on the problem and don’t get dragged into a debate or let it escalate into a massive argument or fight. If you reach out and get verbally attacked, then this is a signal to step away and give your partner time to calm down. Let them know you want to be involved and that you care, but you will not be verbally abused in order to make them feel temporarily better.

This is also not the time to throw every last problem, however minor, into the discussion. Stick to the one specific issue that has created the need for this specific conversation. Remember that the goal of this conversation is to work with your partner to reach a resolution to the problem.

Refrain From Judgment

No one likes to feel judged. It’s probably the quickest way to make another person feel defensive. The result will be that they will shut down emotionally and withdraw from the conversation, leaving behind frustration and unresolved issues for both of you.

Find ways to discuss an issue without, overtly or covertly, sending a message that it’s your partner’s fault, he is wrong, he is the cause of the problem. Even if you are certain you are correct, sending this message will not lead to any sort of resolution. Instead, consider the facts of the situation, and ask him about his logic and reasoning and emotions. Ask him to explain and to share his perspective.

You are not absolving him of responsibility, or accepting it yourself, by doing this. You are simply keeping the lines of communication open and acknowledging that you are two individuals who are seeking a better understanding of each other.

Acknowledge and Validate Emotions

Everyone has a right to their emotions. Do not be dismissive or try to invalidate your partner’s feelings by telling him that there is no reason to be upset, sad, or angry. If he feels a certain way, there is a reason. Accept that he has a right to his feelings – and so do you.

Don’t ever shame someone for the way they feel.

Remember that validation does not imply agreement. “I understand that this is important to you” is not the same as “I agree with anything you say.”

Give What Is Needed in The Moment

Think about what your partner needs most at the moment. Surprisingly, it may not be a solution to the problem. Often, it’s a reminder that despite being on opposing sides, ultimately you are a loving couple determined to work through this situation. A reminder that you are in this together.

Consider holding hands while talking. Or pause the conversation every so often to give each other a hug. Neither of you may think you want this contact, but it will reinforce your connection to each other and quite possibly, help you through this sensitive time.

Practice Active Listening

This vital skill is possibly the most important in this list. In order to truly be supportive in a difficult conversation, you must listen to understand your partner.

Most of us tend to listen to respond.

The idea is to stay completely focused on what your partner is saying without already preparing a “counter-attack”. Ask clarifying questions. Rephrase your partner’s words, and ask them if you are interpreting them correctly.

Often, communication is as much about what is implied but not said. Be sure to take cues from facial expressions and body language as much as from words. We all know it’s hard to express ourselves clearly in highly emotional situations.

So, check in often. “Am I understanding you correctly?” “Were you trying to express this?” “Tell me again so I really get it.” Make sure your partner knows that your ultimate goal is to understand what he is going through so that you can be emotionally supportive.

“We can make a reasonable argument that engaging (well) in difficult conversations is a sign of health in a relationship.”

Douglas Stone

Avoid Making Predictions

You may think you know how a particular situation is going to play out, but the truth is, you really don’t know what is going to happen next. So don’t make predictions that may not be accurate. Don’t make assumptions.

Leave yourself open to the possibility of change, of resolution, of moving forward.

Read More About Communication and Relationships:

Final Thoughts About How to Support Your Partner During a Difficult Conversation

In any partnership, over time difficult conversations will need to take place. One of many ways to reduce the stress of these conversations is to understand how to give support to your partner even during challenging times.

  1. Face the issue head-on
  2. Define the problem clearly
  3. Take as much time as needed
  4. Stay focused on the current issue
  5. Refrain from judgment
  6. Acknowledge and validate emotions
  7. Give what is needed in the moment
  8. Practice Active Listening
  9. Avoid making predictions

This support will provide strength to move forward by underscoring the trust and commitment of your relationship.

woman resting hand on man's shoulder, support your partner during difficult conversations

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