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How to have better conversations

  • September 13, 2021

Dear Melissa,

In response to last week’s “I threw a tantrum” email… what would be a good response to someone in this situation, as a friend? Brandon asked you, “can I help,” but do you have other statements that might be well-suited? I do have a lot of friends who use me as their vent outlet, and I am one to always find a silver lining in it… but what if that isn’t what they want or need? —Nicole

Hi Nicole!

I love this question, because it shows how committed you are to being a good friend by listening and responding in the way they would find the most helpful. Speaking from experience, sometimes I want my husband, sister, or friend to just listen and affirm how I’m feeling, sometimes I want them to be outraged with me (solidarity!), sometimes I want them to deliver a swift kick in the butt to knock me out of my poopy mood, and sometimes I want them to help me find a solution to the issue I’m complaining about.

The problem is, each of those venting sessions can sound exactly the same coming out of my mouth. So how are they (and how are you?) supposed to know in the moment what your friend needs? Happily, I have a two-part plan to help you both.

Part One: Model by OFFERING

You know how one of my favorite phrases is “I am not requesting feedback?” That is one way your conversation partner might share their needs in that moment. However, not everyone is comfortable showing up to a conversation and clearly asking for what they need. Heck, they may not even know what they need at first—they just know they need something. Here’s where you come in.

Before they get into their issue, you say, “Okay, I’m ready to listen, but first, how can I best support you? Do you want advice, or do you need someone to just acknowledge your feelings?” (These aren’t the only options, but this is a great place to start, especially if you’ve never had this kind of conversation before.)

If your partner hasn’t even considered what they need, offer them a moment to think about it. If they come back with something specific, like, “I just need to vent and be heard,” proceed as requested. If they say, “I don’t know,” then your response is, “Okay, let’s just start with you getting it out, and I’ll just listen.” (It’s a safer bet to listen than to immediately go in with advice or feedback.)

Then, your job is to do ask you’re asked. Reflect on what you’re hearing or summarize their feelings. Use phrases like, “it’s totally normal and okay to feel like that,” and “every one of these feelings is valid.” If you sense a shift in the conversation where they may be open to hearing your thoughts now, offer in an open-ended format. “I’m glad you shared this with me, and I hope you feel better now. If you decide you want to talk through your options, I’m here.”

If your partner is pretty in touch with their feelings (and if you have this kind of relationship), you can start offering more specific things as an add-on, like:

“Do you need me to tell you it’s okay to feel like this, or do you need a swift kick in the butt to pop you out of it?”

“Do you want me to get angry with you, or will that just stress you out more? I can also stay super calm and grounded for you.”

“Do you want me to have my entrepreneur/lawyer hat on, or do you need me to wear the best friend/sister hat?”

The key here is remembering that you are there to serve them in that moment, so what you want or how you feel is irrelevant. If they want you to stay calm, you stay calm, even if you’re boiling over on the inside. If you have 18 good ideas but they aren’t ready for advice, you keep your brilliant mouth shut (for now). Allow them the space to truly process and move through what they are feeling without centering yourself in any way.

Part Two: Model by ASKING

The second part of this plan is to start modeling asking for what you need when you’re the one venting. My sister and I have been doing this for years. I recently sent her a text saying, “Hi. I’m still wicked pissed about (this one thing), and I know I’m being ridiculous and overly dramatic about it, but I need to get it out. Can you just humor me and listen?” My sister is also prone to asking me for permission, as in, “I know I need to rest right now, but I feel guilty for doing that. Can you list all of the practical reasons why it’s BETTER for me to rest today?”

So in part two, you start showing up to your friends and asking for what YOU need, as a way to model that it’s acceptable and even encouraged for them to do the same.

“I’m super cranky and I know I’m making too much out of this, but I need to get it out. Can you just listen without telling me I’m being silly?”

“I know this is a solvable problem, but I’m too mad to talk about how right now. Can you listen without offering advice just yet? Maybe once I get it out, I’ll be able to brainstorm next steps.”

“I’ve been going back and forth on this, and I just need to make a decision. Can I share my options with you, and you can tell me what your gut reaction is?”

“I’m going to tell you this story, and I need you NOT to tell a story of your own afterward. I really need to feel heard here.”

Taking into account your relationship with your conversation partner, free to be as specific as possible with these requests, as I did in my text to my sister.

But Melissa, isn’t that a little…. demanding?

Nope—it’s just the opposite! Think about it this way: You’re giving your friend a detailed blueprint as to how they can support you in the best way possible. That is a gift.

Usually, we expect our friends to be mind-readers, which is why three-quarters of the time they don’t get it exactly right, and you both leave the conversation feeling less than heard or effective. But here, you’re telling them exactly what you need, and letting them give it to you. You’ll feel well supported and better when the convo is over, and they’ll feel great knowing they were able to truly help you. Win/win!

I hope this two-step approach helps you, Nicole, and all of you reading both be a better conversation partner and feel more confident asking for what you need from those who want to support you. And who knows, maybe one day together we can completely normalize the phrase, “I am not requesting feedback.”

XO Melissa