How to Have That Difficult Conversation: Gaining the Skills for Honest and Meaningful Communication

How to Have That Difficult Conversation: Gaining the Skills for Honest and Meaningful Communication

by Henry Cloud, John Townsend


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Full of practical tips and how-tos, this book will help you make your relationships better, deepen your intimacy with people you care for, and cultivate more love, understanding, and respect between you and others.

Successful people confront well. They know that setting healthy boundaries improves relationships and can solve important problems. They have discovered that uncomfortable situations can be avoided or resolved through direct conversation. But most of us don't know how to have difficult conversations, and we see confrontation as scary or adversarial.

Authors Henry Cloud and John Townsend take the principles from their award-winning and bestselling book, Boundaries, and apply them to a variety of the most common difficult situations and relationships in order to:

  • Show how healthy confrontation can improve relationships
  • Present the essentials of a good boundary-setting conversation
  • Provide tips on preparing for the conversation
  • Show how to tell people what you want, stop bad behavior, and deal with counterattack
  • Give actual examples of conversations to have with your spouse, your date, your kids, your coworker, your parents, and more!

This book is a practical handbook on positive confrontation that will help you finally have that difficult conversation you've been avoiding. Includes a discussion guide.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780310342564
Publisher: Zondervan
Publication date: 08/04/2015
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 158,311
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Dr. Henry Cloud is a clinical psychologist, pastor to pastors, and New York Times bestselling author. His 45 books, including the iconic Boundaries, have sold over 20 million copies worldwide. Throughout his storied career as a clinician, he started treatment centers, created breakthrough new models rooted in research, and has been a leading voice on issues of mental health and leadership on a global scale. Dr. Cloud lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Tori, and their two daughters, Olivia and Lucy.

Dr. John Townsend is a nationally known leadership consultant, psychologist, and author, selling over 10 million books, including the New York Times bestselling Boundaries series. John founded the Townsend Institute for Leadership and Counseling and the Townsend Leadership Program. Dr. Townsend travels extensively for corporate consulting, speaking events, and to help develop leaders, their teams, and their families. John and his family live in Southern California and Texas. Visit Dr

Read an Excerpt

How to Have that Difficult Conversation You've Been Avoiding

With Your Spouse, Your Adult Child, Your Boss, Your Coworker, Your Best Friend, Your parent, Someone You're Dating

By Henry Cloud, John Townsend


Copyright © 2005 Henry Cloud and John Townsend
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-310-34256-4


The Talk Can Change Your Life

As we speak around the country at conferences on relationships, we will often hear some version of the following story.

A man will come up and say, "Thanks for your materials on setting limits and boundaries. They have changed my life and my marriage."

We will say, "Thank you, too. So what book did you read?"

"I didn't read a book," the man will say. "My wife did!"

He will go on to explain: "I was a crummy communicator with my wife. I controlled her, I had some bad habits, and I had no spiritual life to speak of. Then she read Boundaries, and she started applying the principles. That's when things started changing for both of us. It took some time and effort, but I'm really different now. We are closer, and we have more respect for each other and more freedom in the relationship. I'm doing a lot better with those bad habits, and I'm waking up to my relationship with God."

You would normally expect someone to talk about a book he has actually read. However, this man's unexpected response illustrates a reality: The person who has the problem in a relationship often isn't taking responsibility for his problem. This was bad news for the man's wife. She wanted to see change, but he either didn't see a problem, thought it wasn't a big issue, or thought his wife was overreacting. This can leave the wife who cares for her husband feeling helpless, discouraged, and less able to feel love in her heart for him.

You Can Change the Relationship Alone

But there is good news. Though the person with the problem may not be taking responsibility for, or "owning," the problem, the person affected by the problem can change things. You may be the motivated one, the one who is concerned, sees the problem, and feels discomfort from it, whether it be a bad attitude or a bad behavior. In fact, you may be feeling more pain and discomfort than the other person. In our example, the wife, before confronting her husband, most likely had to deal with isolation, lack of freedom, his bad habits, and the emptiness of not having a spiritual partner.

Things can change when the person experiencing the effects of the problem takes the initiative to resolve it.This wife took the first step. She became aware that her husband's ways weren't good for either of them and that nothing would change unless she did something herself.

That first step is often a conversation, a talk, a face-to-face confrontation with the other person. It is a conversation in which the two people discuss the problem and what can be done about it. It is a talk of truth. That single conversation may be all that's needed. But more likely, it will be the beginning of a series of conversations and events, as it was with the marriage in our example.

We want to affirm and validate your decision to have "the conversation you have been avoiding." How to have that conversation is the core need this book addresses. You need a caring yet honest and effective way to confront someone in your life. The Bible teaches — and research supports the idea — that you can develop the skills and tools to be able to confront well.

What Is a Boundary?

Before we go further, however, we need to define a term that will come up a lot in this book: boundary.

Simply put, a boundary is your personal "property line." It defines who you are, where you end, and where others begin. It refers to the truth, to reality, to what is. When you confront someone about a problem, you are setting a boundary. You can set a boundary with your words when you are honest and when you establish a consequence for another's hurtful actions.

Boundaries help define who we are in our relationships. When we know what we want and do not want, what we are for and against, what we love and hate, what is "me" and what is "not me," we are setting boundaries. People with good boundaries are clear about their opinions, beliefs, and attitudes — in the way that Jesus taught: "Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one" (Matt. 5:37). People without clear boundaries are unsure of their opinions, feelings, and beliefs. They find themselves easily controlled by the demands of others because they feel unsure of themselves when they need to take a stand.

Boundaries also help protect us from injury and harm. By setting boundaries we can take responsibility for the lives and gifts God has given us: "Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life" (Prov. 4:23). Boundaries protect our values, feelings, time, energy, and attitudes. When a person says to another, "I want you to stop criticizing me in public," he is setting a protective boundary.

God himself has boundaries. He designed them and lives them out. He is clear on who he is, what he is for, and what he is against. He is for relationship, truth, love, and honesty, and he is against oppression, injustice, sin, and evil: "For I, the Lord, love justice; I hate robbery and iniquity" (Isa. 61:8). (For more information on boundaries, please refer to our books Boundaries, Boundaries in Marriage, Boundaries with Kids, and Boundaries in Dating.)

In this book we deal with one specific aspect of boundaries: We tell you how to set them by having a helpful and effective "talk" with another person. We will sometimes refer to that confrontation as a boundary conversation, that is, a talk with someone in which you confront a problem you want to resolve with the person.

Having "the Talk"

The last time someone said to you, "I need to talk to you," how did that strike you? Did you think, Maybe she needs to tell me how much she appreciates me. More likely you thought, I'm in trouble. When we consider having "the talk" with someone, it may create much anxiety and throw up many red flags. It may signal conflict, criticism, and even the end of the relationship.

Many of us live in two worlds when it comes to relationships. In one world we have friendly conversations in which we avoid all disagreements; in the other we have major conflict-type conversations that tear everybody and everything up. In the first world we have connection without truth, and in the second we have truth without connection.

God did not design us to live in these two worlds, having these two types of relationships. He wants us to live in the one world, where he lives and where truth and love coexist as allies, not adversaries. Our connections are best when they are truthful, and our truth is best when we are connected. The Bible calls this truth in love: "Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ" (Eph. 4:15). Conversations work best when people both care for each other and tell the truth to each other. Good things happen. People get along, resolve issues, and still maintain the connection they need.

When people have had enough bad experiences in relationships, they begin avoiding conflict and confrontation altogether. They withdraw from truthful conversations. They fear the following things:

Losing the relationship: They fear that the person will withdraw either emotionally or physically from them.

Being the object of anger: They don't want to receive someone's rage or blame about being confronted.

Being hurtful: They are concerned about wounding the person and hurting their feelings.

Being perceived as bad: They want to be seen as a nice person, and they fear they will be seen as unloving and unkind.

These fears often prevent people from sitting down and having the necessary talks that would solve problems. If you identify with any of these fears, it would be worth your while to learn where they come from and how to resolve them. We don't have space to go into that topic now, but our book Boundaries is a good source for this information.

Right now we want to talk more about the major benefits of confronting others with whom you have a problem. Becoming aware of the benefits and advantages of a loving and balanced conversation will help you to get past the fear and have that talk. That is the goal of the next chapter.


The Benefits of a Good Conversation

I (John) often think about all the people who have helped me grow in significant ways over the years. When they come to mind, I reflect on the many ways they gave me compassion, understanding, encouragement, and guidance. Not only that, but I am also thankful for these people's honesty, confrontations, and directness, which pretty much saved my life in many ways. I am the grateful recipient of the benefits of good confrontation.

For example, I remember years ago when I took on too many work responsibilities, and life started fraying at the fringes. I enjoyed all the things I was doing, and they were meaningful, so that's how I justified going too hard. An old friend, Carl, however, got my attention over lunch during that time when he said, "It's getting so that I don't know if I really know you anymore."

"What are you talking about? Of course you know me," I replied.

Carl proceeded to gently tick off several things he had been observing in me lately: self-preoccupation, a lack of emotional presence with others, distractedness, and unavailability.

I couldn't ignore his words, for I knew he wasn't bashing me. He really was concerned about my well-being. And his points truly resonated within me. That was a real turning point for me. I made some overdue adjustments in my work and relationships. Carl's confrontation may well have preserved me from some serious problems later.

We all need to know that the hard work of confrontation has a worthwhile payoff. In the rest of this book we will show the particulars of how to engage in a face-to-face conversation, and you will get examples, tips, and how-tos. But in this chapter we want you to see the seven benefits that come from "telling the truth," and why God has designed things this way.

Preserving Love

Probably the most important benefit of a good confrontation is that it preserves love in a relationship. This may seem counterintuitive to you. You may think, This doesn't make sense. When I confront someone, they will either get mad or leave the relationship. This can and does happen. But confrontation was not designed to make someone angry or chase him or her away. In fact, it was designed to do the opposite.

The Latin term for confrontation means "to turn your face toward, to look at frontally." It merely indicates that you are turning toward the relationship and the person. You are face-to-face, so to speak. In confrontation, people simply face the relationship and deal with an aspect of the connection that needs to be addressed. The intent is to make the relationship better, to deepen the intimacy, and to create more love and respect between two people.

That is why, to be an effective confronter, you need to understand that confrontation works best when it serves love. Boundary conversations are motivated and driven by love. They promote the purposes of love. They enhance a relationship, not end it.

How can confrontation preserve love? Basically by protecting the relationship from elements that would harm it. Love needs protection. It is like tending a garden. If you want your plants to survive and thrive, you need to do more than water and feed them. You also need to protect them from bad weather, insects, and disease.

In the same way, things like disconnection, defensiveness, control, immaturity, and selfishness have the power to infect an entire relationship and contaminate it. Unchecked, they can harm or even end a connection.

When I was in graduate school, I waited tables at restaurants. At one point I moved to a different restaurant closer to home. Scott, a friend of mine and also a grad student, was working there as a senior waiter. In fact, he knew I was looking for another place, and he had told me about the position at his restaurant.

One night Scott asked me if we could talk. We sat down for a cup of coffee after work. When we had settled in, he leaned toward me and said, "Ever since you came to this restaurant, I've felt as if you were competing with me for the senior spot. I wanted to let you know that's how it seems, and ask you what you think."

I thought over what he had told me and said, "I think you're right. I have been competing with you, and I haven't even been aware of it. I'm really sorry, Scott."

"No problem," he said. "I just wanted to get this cleared up between us."

I gave up competing with Scott and concentrated on doing my job. Scott's early intervention helped prevent a huge tear in our relationship. We worked together for some time after that, and we have remained friends to this day. A good confrontation can preserve a relationship: "Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses" (Prov. 27:6).

Resolving Alienation

Healthy confrontations not only preserve relationships, but also bring disconnected people together. Think about someone in your life with whom you have an unspoken conflict or issue. Maybe he isn't emotionally available to you. Maybe she is critical of you. Maybe he expects you to solve his problems for him. Whatever the case, when an existing conflict is not brought into the relationship, it hurts the relationship. It disconnects and alienates you from the other person. The extent to which two people in a relationship can bring up and resolve issues is a critical marker of the soundness of the relationship.

Relationships are designed by God to be whole, and the more parts of you — such as strengths, weaknesses, vulnerabilities, passions, desires, and failures — that are connected to the parts of the other person, the greater the closeness, depth, and meaning of the relationship. Paul made this appeal to the hearts of the people at Corinth: "We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you. We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us. As a fair exchange — I speak as to my children — open wide your hearts also" (2 Cor. 6:11 – 13).

Our hearts are to be open to each other. Where there is some unspoken, unaddressed, and unresolved area of conflict, our hearts can become closed. Many times in my marriage, my insensitivity or my not being there for Barbi has caused her to withdraw emotionally. The alienation I felt was painful. I wanted all of her to be with me, and part of her wasn't there. For example, a few years back I made a financial decision without consulting Barbi. At the time, I thought it wasn't important enough, but when I did tell her, she felt out of the loop, and she was hurt. For a time there was distance between us while she worked through her feelings about this.

Nothing is more miserable than to be in a relationship with someone, yet disconnected from her at the same time. It doesn't feel right, because it isn't right. God did not design us for disconnected relationships. It wasn't a lot of fun when either Barbi or I would bring up a problem, but at least we were talking. We would work it out the best way we could; but most important, the alienation was gone.

I cannot overstate the importance of this issue. It is at the heart of the way God designed relationship. Relationships are fundamentally about love, because God's relationship with us is fundamentally about love: "Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God" (1 John 4:7).

Two people meeting to have the talk is a first step toward ending alienation. A boundary conversation is, in and of itself, a connection. The two are bringing their differences to the light of relationship and seeing what can be done. This might not be pleasant, but it is far better than a relationship that is a living death, where feelings of hurt, anger, conflicted love, and sadness never go away. Not talking about strong feelings doesn't make them go away; in fact, they become more pronounced in our attempts to live as though they don't exist. The two people in this kind of relationship try to get along by skirting issues, their emotions, and ultimately their deep love for each other, and they end up with a shell of a relationship. But when the timing is right and when both people's hearts are in the right place, the shell can again be filled with love, joy, and fulfillment.

Often a couple will remark on how connected they feel after even a poorly done confrontation. Though they may have said some things wrong or handled things badly, they were still able to sense the presence of the other person, and presence was preferable to the polite absence they had been feeling.


Confrontation also brings empowerment, the ability to make choices and changes in your relationship. God created all of us to be change agents for each other. We have a responsibility to influence the people in our lives to be the best possible people they can be: "Therefore encourage one another and build each other up" (1 Thess. 5:11).


Excerpted from How to Have that Difficult Conversation You've Been Avoiding by Henry Cloud, John Townsend. Copyright © 2005 Henry Cloud and John Townsend. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Confident Confrontations, 9,
Part I Why You Need to Have That Difficult Conversation,
1 The Talk Can Change your life, 15,
2 The Benefits of a Good Conversation, 20,
Part II The Essentials of a Good Conversation,
3 Be Emotionally Present, 35,
4 Be Clear about "You" and "I", 38,
5 Clarify the Problem, 41,
6 Balance Grace and Truth, 44,
7 Stay on Task, 47,
8 Use the Formula, When you Do "A," I Feel "B", 51,
9 Affirm and Validate, 54,
10 Apologize for your Part in the Problem, 59,
11 Avoid "Shoulds", 62,
12 Be an Agent for Change, 66,
13 Be Specific, 70,
14 Differentiate between Forgiving and Trusting, 74,
Part III Seeing How It's Done,
15 Telling People What You Want, 81,
16 making Someone Aware of a Problem, 103,
17 Stopping a Behavior, 126,
18 Dealing with Blame, Counterattack, and Other Problems, 157,
Part IV Getting Yourself Ready to Have the Conversation,
19 Why You Need to Be Ready, 183,
20 How to Get Ready, 188,
Part V Having the Difficult Conversation with People in Your Life,
21 With Your Spouse, 207,
22 With Someone You're Dating, 219,
23 With Your Child, 232,
24 With Your Parent, 243,
25 With Adult Children, 256,
26 At Work, 264,
27 With People in Authority, 276,
Speaking the Truth in Love, 287,
Small Group Dicussion Guide, 291,

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