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Setting Conversations Up for Success

We’ve all been there – we want to talk to a family member, significant other, friend, etc. about something important, and possibly difficult, but are hesitant because we aren’t sure how the other person will respond or react. Some of the main keys to setting up these types of conversations for success is how we start them, what we do during them, and how we end them. Below are a few tips that I teach clients (and often use myself), to help give difficult conversations the best chance of being productive.

1. Soften your start-up.

A good predictor of how a conversation will go is often how the conversation is started. Dr. John Gottman describes the importance of using what he calls a soft start-up when initiating a conversation, which includes avoiding attacking or blaming, using a calm tone of voice, starting by saying something positive, and being clear and direct about what you need (Gottman, 1999). Another important piece of starting a conversation is timing. If your partner or family member is usually tired and needs space when they get home from work/school, trying to start the conversation as they are walking in the door is probably not the best time to do it. Try to find a time when both you and the other person are relaxed and not distracted by outside stressors (including phones). Sometimes it can even be helpful to let the other person know you would like to talk about something and schedule a time that works for you both to come back and have the conversation.

2. Don’t just listen, but also hear.

When we are in the middle of a conversation, especially one where emotions may be running high, it can be easy to listen to the words coming out of the other person’s mouth, but not really hear what they are saying, because we are stuck in our own head coming up with our next response. Try to pay all your attention as the other person is speaking and then take a few seconds to come up with your response. It can also be helpful to repeat back what you heard the other person say to clarify that you really heard what they intended for you to hear.

3. Use I-statements.

A great communication skill to use is the I-statement (also sometimes called the XYZ statement) (Dattilio, 2009), which helps you to take accountability for your own feelings, but also speak directly about what you need. Many times, we may frame our statements like “You make me feel _____ when you do _____”. This can be perceived as attacking, as well as blaming the other person for how you feel, which probably isn’t going to help the conversation along. A helpful way to rephrase this is “I feel _____ when you _____. I need _____”. This states the issue and what you would like to see instead, but also shows that you are taking accountability for your own feelings. It’s important to remember to be mindful of your tone – you could craft the perfect I-statement, but if it is still said with an attacking tone, it will probably not be effective.

4. Make an effort to repair afterwards, if needed.

Finally, how the conversation ends and what follows is just as important as how the conversation is started. If the conversation was difficult or emotions were high, leaving either one or both people upset, it is important to do what Dr. Gottman calls making a repair attempt (Gottman, 1999). Repairing includes anything that helps two people come back together and move forward from an interaction, as well as can decrease negative emotions during an interaction. Repair attempts can include actions such as apologizing, expressing appreciation, physical contact (such as a hug), etc. What each person needs to effectively repair is going to look different, so it is important to know what will be most helpful for the other person, as well as yourself.

5. Practice, practice, practice!

Just as with any new skill, learning to have effective conversations with others is something that may take time to learn to be good at. The more you do it and are successful at it, the more you will be motivated to carry out these types of interactions. If you and your partner or family member would like outside help learning how to set your conversations up for success, therapy can be a great place to practice and receive feedback in the moment from a third-party who is not a part of the conversation.


Dattilio, F. M. (2009). Cognitive-behavioral therapy with couples and families: A comprehensive guide for clinicians. Guilford Press.

Gottman, J. M. (1999). The marriage clinic: A scientifically based marital therapy. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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