How to Approach Tricky Conversations with Sensitive People


Do you have someone in your life who you feel afraid to talk to sometimes, particularly regarding hot topics that might trigger a flare up, i.e., hurt, shut down, anger? Do you find yourself avoiding being honest or walking on eggshells with a family member, coworker,  friend, or maybe even your spouse? With some difficult topics, and with certain more sensitive types of people, it’s hard to know how to prevent an emotional storm from hitting the shore.  

At times, it’s beyond our control, no matter how diplomatic or insightful we are, to prevent another person from losing their cool or taking something personally. Nonetheless, when we feel afraid to be ourselves with certain people or speak freely, hesitant to make a request or raise an issue, especially repeatedly, then this becomes the beginning of a valuable learning and growing process — for us and potentially the relationship. 

Adding to the mix, if we are a people pleaser, the last thing we want is to create conflict. Pinning our value on the degree of approval or love we receive from others, we’ll likely go to great lengths to avoid anyone judging or being upset with us. Our fear and resistance only intensifies the recipe for strife and emotional drain, and ultimately inner emptiness. As counter-intuitive as it might feel, we benefit greatly from challenges — especially once we ACCEPT AND EMBRACE FRICTION as a tool to grow stronger within ourselves, to become better people and ultimately to build the real love and unity we so yearn to share with others. 

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Here are 7 tips and considerations when approaching difficult conversations with sensitive people (or sensitive conversations with difficult people).

Zoom out from this challenging dynamic and look within. Connect with your center point before approaching or reacting. Listen for what you’re afraid of, how you might give away your power to someone else’s reactions.  Ask yourself, “What is the lesson in this relationship for me?” “What is my opportunity for change within myself and my life?” Maybe it’s to trust yourself more, to depend less on others’ approval.  Or perhaps it’s an opportunity to overcome your fear of confrontation or setting boundaries. Maybe it’s to grow your patience and compassion.  Our inner exploration brings our power where it belongs — within us — which in turn equips us with greater strength and insight to approach the situation in the most proactive way.

If you are the trigger for hurt feelings or frustration in someone else, even if you made some kind of mistake, others’ reactive behavior is on them. Carve a personal boundary that separates their behavior from your inner value and sense of self. Be busy with what you want to work on in yourself, and less with their reaction. 

When we don’t like how someone is reacting to us, our ego protects by judging and blaming.  It’s not easy to do, but try and separate a person’s poor behavior from the essence of who they are. Look for insecurities and fears beneath their reactive behavior. Do your best to awaken compassion and see beyond the temper, the shut down, or the tendency for harsh words. 

Many conflicts erupt because the conversation taking place right now actually should have happened 2 weeks, 2 months, or maybe 2 decades ago. Energy is never lost or wasted. So if some kind of wedge or truth needs addressing, we can shove it under all we want, but no rug is thick enough to make certain issues disappear. Avoidance (which is not the same as proactive waiting) is not benign. It’s a passive form of reactivity which can turn a little gremlin of a problem into a 3 headed monster. 

Tip: If you're someone who fears speaking up about what’s bothering you, try journaling first so you can hear your own voice. The actual landing of our truth on the page can give you clarity and certainty, fortifying you with greater strength to speak up about your concerns. Remember “not dealing” tends to create fake unity, and a worst ofall, leaves a sour taste of self-betrayal.

While we cannot anticipate every bump in the relationship road, we actually can prevent many blow-ups by putting effort and care into learning the best ways to communicate, especially with close people in our life.  Some demand a very direct approach. Other people need softer startups, and perhaps reassurance before raising a sensitive topic. I find that everyone wants to be appreciated, so before digging in about a grievance with someone, check your soil. How much gratitude have you mixed in along the way. 

We can’t fix, but we can foster ... an environment that is safe to be authentic and vulnerable. If someone is not ready to work on investing in their own healing and change, on improving themselves and their communication, then we cannot do our part and theirs combined.  Our own work on ourselves can make a big impact on the relationship, but the relationship can only grow so much with the lone soldier approach to growth and change.

We have the human right and spiritual responsibility to teach people in our lives how to speak to and treat us. And we can do this firmly without being reactive or disrespectful. It’s important that we know what is “good for us” and communicate this specifically and respectfully. Growing our unconditional love does not mean we must tolerate any environment unconditionally. We must set personal boundaries — no matter who the other person is. 

Tip: If someone in your life tends to get aggressive, bully or intimidate, you can try something like this: “I know this isn't an easy topic, but I’m not feeling comfortable with your tone. I have come to a place in my life where I don't let anyone speak to me that way. It's not good for me. I care and really want to hear your thoughts and feelings, so whenever you are ready to talk calmly and respectfully, I will be happy to continue talking.”  Yes, we can say things like this.