Published: Dec. 13, 2017 By

How to have a difficult conversation

Spending time with family and friends can be as stressful as it is enjoyable. Even when people have the best of intentions, you can find yourself in difficult conversations. Here’s how to make these interactions feel more productive and positive this holiday season.

Two people having a conversation over coffee and teaConflicting emotions

After being at school, it's not uncommon to be thinking about new things or to have different views than your family. When communicating, it's important to remember you can love and care for family members while disagreeing with them. This internal conflict can be expected and doesn't necessarily have to be resolved.

It's important that you allow for this complexity, communicate your thoughts with respect and be willing to consider what someone else has to say.

Coping in the moment

Sometimes difficult conversations and frustrating interactions catch you off-guard or escalate more than you expect. In these moments, practice on-the-spot self-care to resource yourself and ensure you can respond rationally. Give one of these coping strategies a try before responding:

  • Remember to take long breaths while listening to stay present in the moment.
  • Use sensory awareness to stay present with your experience. While you're talking to someone it may be helpful to remain aware of your senses (what you see, hear, feel).
  • Allow your body to be your guide. While talking with others, you might notice many emotions and sensations. Focus your attention on those that help you feel strong and secure.

De-escalating and reframing

When the conversation or situation gets heated, it’s difficult to make any progress. In these situations, de-escalating and returning to the facts are important. Reiterate why this conversation is important and that you value the other person; acknowledge that you recognize they value you, as well, and refocus on what feels important for you to say.

Reframe the conversation as a healthy dialogue. If the volume ticks up, use your own voice to bring it back down; if you find yourself getting frustrated, bring in a coping strategy before speaking again. If need be, ask to take a break and return to the conversation after everyone has time to cool off—maybe by taking a walk, having a snack or getting a good night’s sleep.

The LEAP method

When entering or re-entering the conversation, the LEAP method can be key to maintaining a healthy dialogue.

LEAP stands for Listen, Empathize, Agree and Partner. Listen actively to what the other person is saying, empathize by showing you understand their point of view, agree on non-judgmental common ground and become partners by summarizing the discussion and identifying ways to move forward together.

Managing expectations

While it would be nice, change doesn’t happen overnight. Conversations don’t always resolve the way you’d like, and, more often than not, seeing progress requires a series of conversations and a willingness to keep trying. There is still value in finding your voice and saying what you need to say.

Additionally, others can’t always meet your expectations. Before going into a potentially stressful situation, it’s important to check in with yourself about what you’re expecting and what might realistically happen, so you can prepare emotionally.

Planning a difficult conversation

Sometimes you need to start the difficult conversation yourself. Choosing a quiet area to talk, finding a time that works for all parties and explaining why you want to have this conversation and what you hope will come of it can all make for a better interaction.

Establishing this respect and utilizing the LEAP method are the foundations for keeping the other person engaged, listening and feeling heard. When it then comes time to conclude the conversation, agreeing to talk more at another time and thanking each other for listening can help to preserve the relationship and lay the groundwork for future interactions.

Celebrating the holidays safely

From family dinners to ugly sweater parties, the holidays can be a time of celebrating, feasting and drinking. Whether honoring traditions, ringing in the new year or just enjoying time at home, here are a few things to consider when celebrating over winter break.

People gather around a Christmas tree at an outdoor festivalEscaping holiday stress

From the frantic pace and financial pressures of holiday shopping to being around family more than you're used to, the holidays can feel as demanding as the semester itself. Finding positive ways to deal with this stress is key to making winter break actually feel like a break!

While some may see alcohol as a quick solution to the stress, research shows it can often lead to more stress and unhelpful outcomes. Mindfulness practices, physical activity, talking with friends, cooking and getting outside for a winter walk are proven ways to combat the stress instead.

Seasonal drinking

If you choose to drink, the amount you drink or the type of alcohol often changes during the holidays. These changes to what you may be familiar with can increase the risk of less desirable effects, such as hangovers, alcohol poisoning, and drinking and driving.

Before getting into these situations, it helps to reflect on what your choices usually are around alcohol: Do you drink during the school year? Do your friends’ and families’ drinking habits change your own habits when you spend time with them? How does being out of class influence your drinking behaviors? Once you're aware of how you're being impacted, you can make better, more aware decisions for yourself.

And holiday drinking isn’t a given for anyone. It’s always okay to say “no thanks” and still feel festive with a hot chocolate, peppermint mocha or eggnog! If you’re hosting your own ugly sweater party, try making some of these alcohol-free holiday drinks so your guests have options.

Making a plan

Driving during the winter months can be tricky enough without adding alcohol into the mix. It’s important you make a plan for getting from place to place to stay safe and warm. Designated drivers and affordable rideshares make solid options, and all CU Boulder students are issued an RTD bus pass—making public transportation an easy and free option, as well!

However you choose to celebrate, it’s important to have a plan and stay aware of how you're feeling and what you want from your winter break. Here’s to a happy, healthy holiday season!

This article is brought to you by Wardenburg Health Services. Visit us online at