Tools For Difficult Conversations

By Dr. Bob Wright and Dr. Judith Wright

All across America, we’re engaged in political dialogue. Chances are, you’ve personally engaged in some very difficult conversations with your friends and neighbors—and even your kids and grandkids. Or maybe you have avoided conversations because of the underlying tension.

Whatever your viewpoints, you’ve probably felt some strain on your relationships—you’ve felt frustration, concern, fear, or even anger. You might feel the political climate is driving a wedge between family members, ending friendships, turning brothers against brothers.

Depending on your level of comfort and approach to the topic, you might find yourself holding back your opinions or swooping in to rescue and smooth things over—or even avoiding certain issues altogether. Alternatively, you might find yourself ready to reach through the phone or across the table and throttle your adult son or daughter out of frustration.

As elders, it’s our responsibility to understand, to mediate, and to facilitate these difficult conversations.

Does that mean it’s your job to convince? No way! It’s likely not even within your ability to force another human being to change their opinions.

Where We Came From & here We’re Going


Funny New Age Senior Couple of Musicians

Our generation, particularly those of us who are Baby Boomers, can start to feel…well, old and vulnerable. We might feel as though our voices are no longer heard. We may find ourselves returning to distant memories like the aftermath of Kent State. We do have a great deal of experience and knowledge to bring to the table, yet we didn’t come from the Greatest Generation before us, nor are we as tech-savvy as the Gen X-ers and Millennials.

We came of age in the 60s and 70s. We lived in a time when we learned about the importance of changing views, fostering dialogue, and peace, love and understanding, especially for the soldiers returning from Vietnam. Whatever your views, even if you’ve washed off the patchouli and put away the love beads (or maybe you were more of a yuppie than a hippie), chances are you can still embrace discussion and exploration.

 Even if you’ve washed off the patchouli and put away the love beads, chances are you can still embrace discussion and exploration.

Those who lived through the 60s may be familiar with the work of Erik Erikson on psychosocial development phases. A pioneer in the field, Erikson was at the dawn of American acceptance of psychology. He posited that there are 8 stages of development—of which the seventh stage is “care and generativity (concern for upcoming generations) vs. stagnation,” and the eighth stage is “wisdom, ego and integrity vs. despair.”

As older adults, we’re moving into the wisdom, ego, and integrity stage (while hopefully avoiding despair). Optimistically, we’re transitioning into this eighth stage (which usually begins around age 65) by bringing with us the care and generativity from stage seven.

We are the elders and the wisest of our tribe. We can expect and demand respect—which, of course, we may often feel we don’t get from the younger generations. As elders, we also have great responsibility. We must take our wisdom, care, and generativity and incorporate it into our interactions. We must rise above our opinions to listen and engage. We mustn’t try to convince; we must generate and facilitate conversations. It is our responsibility—especially as we move into this next phase of life–to embrace our role as elder, without becoming an old know-it-all!.

Tools for Having Difficult Conversations

Everyone can follow a set of basic rules to help facilitate productive conversation and/or conflict. We call these the Rules of Engagement and we expand on them in our book The Heart of the Fight.

One of the biggest rules is to accentuate the positive. Now, this doesn’t mean “sweep your feelings under the rug” or “suppress your negative feelings,” nor does it mean that we pretend everything is rosy. Quite the contrary, in fact! Part of truly engaging is embracing conflict and discussion. Accentuating the positive means that we are open, curious, and willing to dig in. It’s okay to talk about things—it’s even healthy! Celebrate that people are passionate enough to care.

Things start to unravel when we focus on the negatives instead and fall into the pattern of blame, shame, and justification. Blame and shame have no role in close exchanges. Justification is only valid in that it’s part of the process of thinking things through—not fighting to assert our opinions. So when things get heated and convoluted, and you find yourself blaming, shaming, or justifying, it’s perfectly fine to take a timeout to gather your thoughts and get to what you are feeling underneath your defenses or attacks.

We have to separate our emotions from our thoughts. Unfortunately, when we discuss heated or politically-charged topics, there’s often a great deal of emotion and frustration swirling around. Don’t be surprised if someone is sitting on a feeling and holding it in until it explodes. Know that it’s each person’s responsibility to unpack the thought from the feeling. Cognitive neuroscience research shows that when we can name our feelings, it helps to bring our higher level processing on board so we can think more clearly. We can be mad, hurt, or scared and still make cogent points and hear the other.

In these discussions, it’s best to avoid personal attacks. Yelling at someone that they’re an “idiot” or a “hypocrite” isn’t just unproductive, it can also erode the intimacy of your relationship, especially with your son or daughter, or grandson or granddaughter. Keep the discussions on topic and give everyone room to think and share. Otherwise, untethered conflict could eventually drive a wedge that may be hard to repair.

Yelling at someone isn’t just unproductive; it can also erode the intimacy of your relationship.

 Instead, establish the rules beforehand. Let the other party know you’re hoping to establish a new family culture of dialogue and discussion. Make the goal of all conversations simply to reach understanding with each other. It’s not about convincing, proving a point, or arguing who’s right and who’s wrong.

For example, our friend Sally* recently recounted an incident between her conservative-leaning husband Ernie* and her liberal-leaning brother Dan*:

“I was nervous when our conversation over dinner turned political, but I noticed that Dan was genuinely trying to understand Ernie’s thinking and where he was coming from. He continuously made a point of reassuring Ernie so the dialog never turned personal. Dan even agreed with Ernie on several points throughout the evening so the discussion went well beyond just ‘Dan vs. Ernie’—it was a thorough unpacking of the issues. Although Ernie felt threatened at times during the conversation, at the end of the evening when he and I were talking at home, he wasn’t at all angry—which is significant because he’s typically easily riled up over these topics. I really felt like Dan was talking to Ernie in a way that built trust, so the channels of communication can stay open. As a result, I believe they will continue to have these conversations and avoid messy, pointless ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ arguments in the future.”

These discussions often go off the rails when we get tripped up on the little things. We get emotionally hooked-in from previous disagreements (or all-out brawls) we’ve had with each other, so when subtle points come up in the discussion, they leave us feeling more personally hurt than we were before it started. Instead, let this be a discussion to open the doorway to a more thoughtful unpacking of the content. This thoughtful unpacking can help us learn how each person in the conversation came to their opinion. Keep the conversation on subject and avoid the tendency to focus on only your personal feelings.

As elders, let’s put the rules in place: everyone must avoid accusations and put-downs. You don’t have to back down—but remember that interrupting or constantly talking over others isn’t listening. Make a point to engage in a dialogue—back and forth, where each person speaks responsibly and from the heart.

As human beings, parents, and grandparents, we owe it to each other to show understanding even if we vehemently disagree on a topic. It’s our responsibility to understand, to mediate, and to facilitate so we can connect with younger generations.

For more ways you can continue to live vibrantly and grow each day, visit

About the Authors

conversationsDr. Judith Wright and Dr. Bob Wright, are a husband/wife duo and Chicago-based relationship counselors. They are award-winning authors and trainers and have appeared on numerous TV and radio programs including ABC’s 20/20, Good Morning America, Oprah, the Today Show, the Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Marie Claire, Better Homes and Gardens, and Vanity Fair. They are the co-authors of “The Heart of the Fight: A Couples Guide to 15 Common Fights, What They Really Mean & How They Can Bring You Closer.


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