Girl talking on her cell phone.

Difficult conversations are a normal part of life, and we may not always agree with the viewpoints of our friends or family members. That being said, it’s important to communicate our thoughts and views in a thoughtful way. Here are some tips to help you make the most of tough conversations. 

Starting a tough conversation

Plan ahead

Sometimes, we may find ourselves initiating tough conversations. Whether we want to discuss our grades, major, mental health, substance use or boundaries with loved ones, preparing for the conversation in advance can be helpful. Planning ahead can help you organize your thoughts, share your views in a respectful way and be open to hearing the other person’s point of view. When preparing for a tough conversation, take a few moments to consider these questions:

  • Why is this conversation important to me?
  • What do I want to accomplish by having this conversation?
  • What would be an ideal outcome?
  • How might this conversation affect our relationship?
  • How will I know when it’s time to take a break?
  • What assumptions am I making about the other person or how they’ll respond?

Before going into a potentially stressful conversation, it’s important to check-in with ourselves. Review your expectations and try not to assume the outcome or reaction of the other person. It can be helpful to think about a variety of potential outcomes, such as if it goes as hoped or if it goes more poorly. This can help you be prepared to cope with whatever outcome happens.

If you’re not the one to initiate the conversation, it can be helpful to ask for time to pull your thoughts together before engaging in discussion. Make a plan and pick a time when you both can talk. This will help you feel more prepared, and the conversation won’t catch you off guard. 

Pick a quiet time

It can be difficult to start a tough conversation. Choosing a private area to talk, finding a time that works for both participants, explaining why you want to have this conversation and sharing what you hope will come of it can all make for a better interaction.

Working through a tough conversation

Focus on listening

Good communication starts with listening. Approach disagreements or conflict with a sense of curiosity and utilize active listening skills. This can help us work past surface-level disagreements and explore underlying issues more effectively. 

Try to focus your full attention on understanding the other person's point of view, and resist the urge to develop your response while they are speaking. Allow the other person to share their thoughts uninterrupted, and encourage them to do the same for you. When people feel heard and validated, it allows them to lower their defenses, and they are more able to really listen and hear you.

If you need to take a moment to think of a response, let the other person know that you are committed to the conversation and want to ensure you have your thoughts in order before speaking.


In the heat of the moment, there can be disconnect between what someone is saying and what we are hearing. To avoid misunderstandings, it can be helpful to clarify each of our perspectives by asking open-ended questions like:

  • Can you tell me more about that?
  • What is important to you about that?

Each of you should share your perspective without assigning blame or judgment. “I” statements can be a great tool to help you express and reflect on your own behaviors, thoughts and feelings. You can also download a free PDF for examples of active listening and “I” statements from Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution (SCCR). This sheet provides tips for how to frame “I” statements and practice other active listening skills. 

De-escalate or take a break

When we have tough conversations, they can become heated or escalate, often unintentionally. When this happens, it may even lead you to say something that you regret later. In these situations, de-escalating is an important tool to bring everyone back to the facts.

If the volume ticks up, use your own voice to bring it back down by speaking softly. If you find yourself getting frustrated, take a moment and breathe deeply before speaking again. If need be, take a break and return to the conversation after everyone has time to cool off. Taking a short walk, having a snack or getting a good night’s sleep are all great strategies to help us collect ourselves.

Moving forward

Reflect and follow up if needed

While it would be nice, change rarely happens overnight. Conversations don’t always resolve the way we’d like, and more often than not, seeing progress requires a series of conversations and a willingness to keep trying. If things feel like they’re unresolved, let the person know that you appreciate their time and you’d like to follow up with them in the future. Give them some time and space before engaging again. If things are resolved more quickly, share your appreciation and gratitude and let them know you value their help and input.

Student resources

If you’re having trouble reengaging or starting the conversation, there are resources available to help. 

  • Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution (SCCR) has a variety of free webinars, skill-building activities, individual conflict coaching and workshops that can help you address conflict in a variety of relationships, including roommates, family or professors. They also have a conflict style quiz that can help you learn how you (and others) approach conflict. This quiz can be helpful to understand how to manage conflict effectively between styles.
  • Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS) offers e-Let’s Talk, a free service that allows students to confidentially consult with a CAPS provider. Let’s Talk counselors can help provide insight, solutions and information about additional resources. Students commonly visit with concerns about stress, sadness, worry, relationships, academic performance, family problems and financial struggles. 
  • Conflict Resolution offers free coaching, workshops and facilitated groups to help you figure out how to navigate and overcome conflict. They specialize in helping people who may be struggling with roommates, friends, family members, romantic partners, instructors and more. 
  • If you’re not sure how to start the conversation or feel nervous about having a conversation, check out Kognito. Kognito is an online tool that can help you practice having challenging conversations, especially when we are feeling concerned about someone. It can help you learn how to work through conversations and practice what you’d like to say.

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