How to Bring Up an Important or Sensitive Topic to a Person?

By Concentric Counselor Jennifer Larson, LCPC, NCC

It’s been six months since my last blog post, so it’s much overdue.  There has been no shortage of topics to write about as they perpetually swirl around in my head – it’s now just a matter of carving out the time to be intentional about writing again.  So, here I go. 

This is one of my favorite topics as it comes up fairly regularly in sessions, not to mention I love helping people to learn how to establish and maintain boundaries while learning how to be a better communicator. Please know this blog just scratches the surface as there are many facets when it comes to boundaries and communication, but at least these pointers can be the launching pad you need to start. 

People consistently ask how to bring up an important or sensitive topic to a person while at the same time not hurting their feelings, making the situation worse, or coming off as a jerk.  While we cannot ultimately control the outcome of the interaction or the other person’s feelings, we most certainly can prepare and use an approach that can increase the chances of a better outcome keeping in mind integrity, respect, and boundaries. 

For some, it takes a lot of courage and strength to confront a person. So, if this is you, give yourself a pat on the back for taking this difficult step.  Some people may feel somewhat comfortable or even enjoy confronting, but may neglect to do it somewhat well.  Whatever your situation is, just remember it may be awkward to learn something new, it’s okay to make mistakes along the way.  You will get better with further learning and practice.  As we therapists love to say, “It’s a process.” 

One of the first things to consider is what is your intention (or goal) for bringing up an important topic to another.  Is it to clarify a situation, better understand another, ask someone if they can meet a need of yours, or come up with a solution?  For purposes of having this conversation, try to clearly define your intention(s) coming up with only one or two.  If there are more areas to cover with this person, you can parcel out over time with several conversations.  But for this initial conversation, you don’t want to fire off a litany of items all at once. 

Ok, so you now have your 1-2 intentions.  Next, you will want to ‘invite’ the person to have a conversation with you.  You do not want to spring it on this person when he or she least expects it.  You want to be mindful of not only when you are available to provide your full attention, but also when the other person is completely available.  The invite can be, “I would like to talk to you about something that is really important to me, are you around to chat tonight over dinner or tomorrow morning?” 

The day, time and possibly place have been pinned down.  Next is the anticipation of actually having the conversation.  You may be fraught with anxiety, fear, or other unpleasant feelings.  If this is the case, it’s perfectly normal and okay.  Keep in mind, the other person may be just anxious.  Just remember this person and topic are important to you, and you are approaching this person with your best intentions and method of communication. 

The time has come to engage with one another.  You can warm up the interaction by either acknowledging or thanking the person for being open to talking or you can briefly state something that is positive about that person or the two of you.  This warm-up can help ease both of you into the conversation while setting a positive (or even neutral) tone.

After easing in, you will share your thoughts and feelings by speaking from an “I” position versus opening the dialogue with “You.”  Speaking from an “I” position shows accountability and ownership whereas entering the conversation with “You” can put the person on the defense.  For instance, “I have been bothered lately by the lack of connection or sex between us”, “I have concerns about our how you address disciplining our child and want to learn more about your position on this”, “I am feeling overwhelmed and would like some support from you with the household chores" or "I would like to talk about the restaurant incident the other day.”  Remember you are the one who ultimately wants this conversation, so it is up to you to share you (your thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and beliefs). 

Try your best not to blame the other person, be critical or judgmental, talking down to the person or going into demands and commands.  Also, try your best to suspend those pesky loaded terms, such as “always”, “never” or “should."  Use these words judiciously as they often do not depict complete accuracy (e.g. You never compliment me; You are always rude) not to mention these words can convey judgment and criticism (You should want to be a better partner to me; You should know what I want). 

Also, be mindful of your tone, choice of words, body language, including facial expressions.  Eye-rolling, using offensive language, speaking in a patronizing tone or yelling, sitting with your arm crossed are some examples that will undermine the conversation.  You want to work towards conveying both verbally and non-verbally openness, equity, and respect. 

So, you’ve shared your thoughts keeping these key items in mind, now what?  Depending on the topic or person, the conversation can go in a variety of directions.  For brevity sake, let’s say worse-case scenario is this person reacts negatively to you.  Depending on the type of negativity, you may need to remove yourself from the conversation, pause the conversation until both of you are in a better spot to chat constructively or you can redirect the interaction by expressing your overall intention and that you would like to reciprocate by also fully listening and understanding the other person.  You can ask for a commitment that both of you will try your best.  It’s okay if the two of you may not agree or feel the same way.  For you, you are learning how to bring up an important topic to another with a few tools in your bag.  

Go ahead, and give it whirl -- you're on your way to learning how to approach people with topics that matter to you!