How to Have Courageous Conversations


A few years ago, I read Chris Voss’s Never Split the Difference and became a bit of a nerd about hostage negotiation. The tools I learned changed everything about the way I view confrontation. It works with babies, teenagers, hotel managers, Uber drivers, and it’s completely revolutionized the way I resolve conflicts in my marriage.

One of the main things that happens to all of us when we’re confronting an issue is that we become more susceptible to triggers. In confronting issues in your marriage, no one can trigger you like your spouse. It’s the most intimate relationship you’ll ever have, and because of that, no one else can bring out the best or worst in you with a single sentence.

What if I told you there was a way to always bring out the best in your spouse and yourself, even in courageous conversations?

I like to call them courageous conversations because you know it’s going to take courage for you to say what you need to say, and for your spouse to hear what you have to say—but the conversation doesn’t have to be triggering.

1. Face the Issue Together

See, most people avoid confrontation at all costs, but it’s one of the best things to do in a relationship because it’s the only way to get over whatever hurdles you face. People think confrontation is synonymous with conflict, but the two are not the same thing by definition. When you are in conflict over something, you’re in opposition—facing in two different directions. When you confront something, you both face forward in the same direction to identify the obstacle in front of you. You can’t confront something by looking in opposite directions.

When you understand that confrontation is about an issue, not about a person, you can face the issue together. Immediately, the problem isn’t about you or your spouse; it’s about the issue itself. Even if it’s something someone said or did, this slight shift helps reduce the possible triggers in the conversation because it’s not you against your spouse; it’s both of you facing the issue together.

2. Stay Genuinely Curious

One of the best ways to mitigate triggers in a courageous conversation is just to stay curious. The more curious you are about your spouse’s point of view, the less triggered you’re going to be because you’re not focused on defending yourself. Instead of being protective of your side of the story, remain genuinely curious about why your spouse thinks the way they think. That level of curiosity mitigates your own stress level because it redirects your focus, but it also gives you so much more understanding of your spouse’s heart and mind.

In media, the cry is, “content is king,” but in relationships, context is king and understanding makes all the difference. That’s what the Bible says in Proverbs 4:7, “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting, get understanding.” The only way you will understand where your spouse is coming from is to start asking questions.

3. Ask Questions

One of the best ways to ask questions in a courageous conversation is called mirroring—reframing the last 3–5 words your spouse said.

Let’s say my wife Juliette and I are having a courageous conversation and she’s upset by something I said. In a heated, conflicted discussion, I might get defensive and say, “Well, I said it because of this, and I didn’t even mean it that way!”

In confronting the issue at hand, she says she’s upset by something I said. I can mitigate my own triggers by mirroring and merely asking, “Wow, it sounds like what I said really upset you… What was it about what I said that upset you so much?” I’m not raising my voice or getting defensive; I’m simply allowing the conversation to develop by prompting my wife to dive deeper into her own feelings. That one question not only reframes her words and tells her I’m listening to her, it also just puts me in a position to be genuinely curious about her. I can even ask clarifying questions like, “Was it my tone that made you upset? Was it my delivery?”

Or maybe you’re confronting an issue where your spouse has upset you. Instead of shouting, “That hurts!” You can mitigate triggers by saying, “Hey, I want you to know that what you said really hurt me. Here’s why… Did you intend to do that?” Instead of automatically jumping to the conclusion that your spouse hurt you on purpose, ask the question straight up: “Did you intend to hurt me?”

The old adage is, curiosity killed the cat, but I beg to differ. I think curiosity kills conjecture and saves your relationship. By slowing down and remaining genuinely curious in courageous conversations, you can mitigate triggers and keep the conversation going. If we could all be more curious about not only how we’re feeling, but how our spouse is feeling, we’ll start having more productive conversations.

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