My friend’s eyes were wide with sadness and fear. She’d been avoiding a tough talk with her boyfriend, wasn’t sure where to begin, and asked me to role play with her.

(Stick with this, business leaders, because we make the same mistakes in difficult conversations at work, too.)

We Set the Wrong Goal

“For the last year and a half,” she explained, “I’ve told him I love him. I can see by how he treats me that he loves me, too. We’ve talked about this before. He says, ‘The term love is so overused that it’s meaningless.’ He doesn’t say this word to anyone.”

“What do you want to have happen because of this conversation?” I asked.

“I want him to tell me he loves me,” she replied.

We talked about how we can’t make people do anything.

Then our conversation shifted. I asked about other difficult conversations they’ve had. She said, “I’ve shared some really vulnerable things with him. And in the end, this has always brought us closer.”

“How about that as your goal?” I asked. “You have to be prepared that he may not be ready to say, ‘I love you.’ But what if this conversation deepened feelings of intimacy for both of you?”

We Tell People What to Do

She agreed, but now wasn’t sure where to start. Her original idea was, “My primary love language is ‘words of affirmation.’ I know it’s hard for you to say, ‘I love you’ but I really need to hear it!”

We discussed how this would have made him “wrong” and likely defensive. It also would make it harder to reach her new goal of intimacy.

“How about explaining what your experience is like: just sticking with the facts?” I asked.

She described it this way, “You know I love you. When I say that, I see this flicker in your eyes: like you don’t know how to respond. Then I get a catch in my throat. And we both feel uncomfortable. As a result, I don’t tell you I love you as much as I used to. This has me concerned. And I’m not sure what to do about it.”

We Talk too Much

For her, and for most of us, this can be the toughest part.

To make our most important point—to share our experience without judgment, condescension or wheedling—and then shut up.

To give the person space and time to respond, while we listen to understand. To allow that person to make suggestions on what to do. To create a new solution together.

Stop Creating What We Don’t Want

Yes: there are times when we all think, “If they’d just do what I’m telling them to, everything would be fine!” And we may even be right.

But every difficult conversation plays out on two levels. The first is the surface topic. In my friend’s case, her need to hear “I love you.” The second is the deeper relationship. In this instance, her desire to feel an intimate connection with this man she loves.

It’s the same thing at the office.

Maybe you’re having an issue with someone on your team not getting her work done on time. Perhaps you’ve told her “get those reports to me every Wednesday at 9:00”—the topical level of communication—and it didn’t work. 

If you’re not careful, you’ll devolve into pushing her and she’ll resist you. That will create problems in your relationship. And even if you find a solution to the surface issue, both of you will respond to each other with eye rolls and resentment. Once that happens, people get entrenched in confirmation bias: looking for more ways to make the other person wrong. Then it’s probably time for someone to find another job.

Dig more deeply into the goals you set for difficult conversations—and do a gut check to make sure this is really what you want. When you express yourself, talk about your experience rather than what you see as the other person’s shortfalls. Involve him in creating the solution—rather than pushing yours on him.

You’ll do more than have a better shot at improving the topic that’s troubling you. You have the chance to improve this relationship—and have fewer tough talks in the future!