How to approach a difficult conversation

Talking to family and friends about plans and issues is important, but we often avoid it when things get tough.

This article was written by Harriet Murray (Senior Associate) and Sophia Smout (Trainee Solicitor).

Discussions around relationship breakdown, family disputes, diagnoses of illness or loss of capacity are not easy.

Equally, conversations relating to who is to inherit and how (whether outright or if assets are to be held in trust) or a perceived inequality of inheritance can be difficult.

Even discussions as to who should be appointed executors and trustees of a Will or guardians for young children can become prickly topics.

In many cases, holding conversations with family and friends to set out intentions, resolve differences or make plans for the future can be both necessary and productive, but all too often it is tempting simply to avoid such subjects.

Below are five practical tips which can assist when approaching a difficult conversation, helping to ensure that discussions run smoothly and positive outcomes are achieved.

  1. Plan your conversation carefully in advance, and make sure you know exactly what it is that you want to talk about. Whilst it is generally better to avoid scripting a difficult conversation – not least because this can stop you from listening properly to the other person – it is worthwhile thinking carefully about the points you wish to make in advance.
  2. Listen to the other person and acknowledge their point of view. It is easy to go into a conversation with a fixed idea about how you would like it to go, but it may be worth being open to different outcomes or solutions which might be suggested, and bearing in mind that other people might feel very differently than you towards a particular situation.
  3. Acknowledge emotions in yourself and the other person. It is very normal to feel upset, confused or angry when discussing difficult topics such as illness, financial issues or succession, and it is often more productive to acknowledge these emotions in yourself and the people you are talking to, and to recognise if they are becoming overwhelming. If emotions start to interfere with the productivity of the conversation, then it can be helpful to suggest pausing and resuming at another time when everyone has had a chance to reflect.
  4. Confirm any conclusions or action points. A discussion around family illness, for example, might require you to agree on an action plan with other family members, perhaps in relation to medical assistance or financial matters. Putting action points in writing will help to make sure that everyone is in agreement and understands what needs to happen next. This can help to avoid confusion and tension at a later date.
  5. Engage with professional advisers who can offer support and advice if you are thinking about holding a difficult conversation with loved ones, and can help you to prepare for this, as well as providing practical solutions.

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