How to Communicate About Difficult Subjects

See also: Offering Constructive Criticism

Communication is a complex part of the human experience. People use a wide range of words and expressions throughout life in order to exchange information with each other. Sometimes this is voluntary, and at other times it’s subconscious.

Regardless of the intent, everything from a shout to a raised eyebrow can send information or imply a feeling, potentially conveying a host of messages.

That’s why it’s important to take the time to learn proper communication. When a challenging or complicated situation arises, it’s good to be equipped with a thorough understanding of how to communicate what you need to say to others. Whether you’re overseeing employees, parenting children, talking things over with a friend, or explaining yourself to a spouse, learning to talk about difficult subjects is a cornerstone of proper communication.

People sitting around a wooden table.

The Power of Soft Skills

The workplace has always operated on hard skills like superior knowledge, academic training, or experience in a certain field or industry. However, in the modern day, employers are becoming increasingly aware that it takes more than just these “hard” skills to help a company succeed.

The modern hiring manager also looks for other “soft” skills as well. Soft skills, also known as interpersonal skills, include things like compatibility with co-workers and the ability to collaborate. Arguably, though, the most important soft skill a professional can demonstrate is the simple yet powerful ability to communicate effectively. This ability to connect and work productively with employees and teammates is being increasingly recognized for its profound effect on how businesses function from top to bottom.

This effect doesn’t stop with the business world. Interpersonal relationships outside of the workplace are not only affected by communication — they’re often literally created by them. Parents, for example, must interact and communicate with their children, nurturing and caring for them.

In fact, when it comes to the common practice of allowing infants to “cry it out,” researchers argued that parents should console them when they cry and bring them to bed with them, where they can feel secure. In other words, even before two-way English conversations are possible, the need to communicate care and concern in scary, difficult situations is a prevalent factor that can literally prevent scarring trauma.

The communication continues into adulthood, as well. Friendships, for instance, famously blossom on shared self-interest. C.S. Lewis said it best when he said of two friends communicating with one another, “Friendship … is born at the moment when one man says to another ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself...” referencing the shared, communicated interest that friendships are built on.

Perhaps the greatest case for interpersonal communication, though, is in romantic relationships. Nearly everything that makes a healthy marriage revolves around communicating about the good, the bad, and the ugly. In fact, arguing is another classic element that is a hallmark trait of a healthy relationship.

In summary, everything from the workplace to parenthood, friendship, and marriage itself revolves around communicating, particularly when things are bad.

Tips for Communicating About Difficult Subjects

If you struggle with communication in any of these areas, then guess what? You’re just as human as the rest of us. With that said, here are a few tips to consider in order to help strengthen your communication skills across the board.

Practice Active Listening

Communication is very different from broadcasting a message to a group of people. A parent announcing that it’s bedtime is simply informing their children of a truth. However, a parent answering their child’s questions about why they have to go to bed so early is genuinely communicating with them. The primary difference? They’re allowing communication to be a two-way process by practicing active listening.

Good communication does not simply lie on clearly transmitting information. It also requires confirmation that it’s been received and active listening to responses and questions if required.

Be Confident

It’s also important to be confident when communicating with another person or group of people, especially when you are discussing a difficult subject. For instance, a boss announcing layoffs must be clear and confident in their message. They must take ownership of their words and be willing to clarify why the layoffs are necessary, as well as provide understandable, meaningful answers to employees’ questions.

Demonstrate Emotional Intelligence

Another key element of good communication, even in times of duress, is the ability to demonstrate emotional intelligence. This requires communicators to identify their own emotional reactions, as well as the emotions of those they’re talking to. The latter, in particular, can be extremely difficult and requires a great deal of practice.

Daniel Goleman separated the concept of emotional intelligence into two categories of competency: personal and social. Each is filled with things like empathy, motivation, and self-awareness. Goleman’s division into each section, along with their corresponding soft skill sets, can be found here.

Treat Others Equally

It’s easy to look at a good communicator during a crisis or difficult time as someone who takes the wheel and tells everyone what to do. While that certainly has a time and place, good leadership — particularly in times when stress and discomfort must be communicated — should often emulate a more democratic approach.

This revolves around, once again, hearing what others have to say and treating them as equals. Yes, you may be at different points in the hierarchy, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’re all humans. A good communicator keeps that fact in the front of their mind when discussing difficult subjects.

Look for Non-Verbal Communication

As much as 80% of communication is non-verbal. This includes things like:

  • Body language and body movement
  • Pitch and tone of voice
  • Posture
  • Eye contact
  • Facial Expressions
  • Physiological reactions like sweating or breathing

It’s obviously important to be aware of the effects of these non-verbal elements of communication when face to face with someone. On top of that, it’s equally important to be aware of their absence when communicating via text or phone.

Stay Positive

Finally, try to stay positive with your message. This doesn’t mean cracking jokes about something serious. It means to tailor your words and expressions to highlight the positive whenever possible. This can feel impossible at times, but it’s always worth trying. When combined with things like emotional intelligence and active listening, positivity can have a truly profound effect on communicating in a difficult situation.

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide to Interpersonal Skills eBooks.

The Skills You Need Guide to Interpersonal Skills

Develop your interpersonal skills with our series of eBooks. Learn about and improve your communication skills, tackle conflict resolution, mediate in difficult situations, and develop your emotional intelligence.

Using Communication as a Tool for Good

To recap, good communication of difficult subjects includes:

  1. Practicing active listening
  2. Being confident and positive with your message
  3. Treating others as equals
  4. Looking for non-verbal communication
  5. Exhibiting emotional intelligence

These are all practical ways to increase your communicative abilities. Whether you’re snuggling a scared newborn in the middle of the night, debating with a friend over a disagreement, or delivering bad news at work, utilizing these tools can minimize the dread of communicating a message in a difficult scenario. In fact, they can not only reduce the pain but actively work to help bring restoration, peace, and emotional balance to everyone involved.

About the Author

Magnolia Potter is from the Pacific Northwest and writes from time to time. She prefers to cover a variety of topics and not just settle on one. When Magnolia’s not writing, you can find her outdoors or curled up with a good book.