Home and Family

Tips for Sensitive Conversations

by Jane Riffe, WVU Extension Specialist, Family and Human Development

When it comes to difficult topics, couples and families often get “off track,” resulting in damaged relationships and wounded feelings. Here are some pointers from Dr. Jane Riffe, WVU Extension Family and Human Development Specialist, to help you keep the conversation calm, even with hot topics. Look for these pointers periodically in Families & Health newsletters.

Tip #1 Use a “Softened Start-up”

Start slowly and on a neutral note. Dr. John Gottman’s research has found that discussions practically always end on the same note on which they begin (John Gottman- The Seven Principles for Making your Marriage Work, p. 161) If you start a discussion harshly with by verbally attacking or blaming your spouse or family member, you will end up with a fight instead of a solution. Bring up complaints in a neutral, less accusatory way.

A soft start-up doesn’t have to be diplomatic, it just has not be sarcastic or accusatory. It is interesting to note that Gottman’s research has found that the wife is by far the partner most likely to be responsible for a harsh start-up. This is because women are more likely than men to bring up difficult issues and push to get them resolved. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to try to distance themselves from hard-to-face concerns.

Tip#2 Shift from complaint to request

Complaining has been found to be ineffective in getting your needs met, according to author Terrence Real. Instead of focusing on what your partner has done wrong, train yourself (it does take conscious attention and discipline!) to focus on what he or she could do now or later that would be right.

Remember, these skills take practice and the desire to maintain a loving connection even when you disagree. Try talking about these ideas with your partner or your children when things are calm. Tell them of your hope to be able to talk through conflicts, instead of avoiding the issues or managing distressing blow-ups.

For more information on using these skills to talk about money with your spouse or adult children, see the 2011 CEOS lesson on this topic written by Ron Hatfield and Jane Riffe – “Talking about Money with the Grownups in your Family”.


Gottman, John (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Your Marriage Work.
Three Rivers: New York. Real, Terrence (2007). The New Rules of Marriage. Ballantine: New York