College students are masters of procrastination, especially when it comes to having difficult conversations. Most of us would rather pretend a problem doesn’t exist than confront a close friend or have “the talk” with our significant other. No, thank you!
However, some of the toughest conversations are the most important ones to have, and the sooner you acknowledge a problem, the sooner you can deal with it. If you’re avoiding one of these tough conversations, now is the time to take the plunge. Here’s how!
1. Defining the relationship
There’s a reason why the scariest four-word sentence in the English language is, “We need to talk.” Asking your guy to DTR or discussing your future together can be nerve-wracking, uncomfortable and awkward, which is why we often try to avoid it altogether.
“I'm graduating in May, but my boyfriend isn't. I'm completely avoiding the conversation about whether we're going to stay together,” says Rachel*, a senior at Skidmore College. “It's come up recently, and I basically told him I haven't ruled anything out, but that I don't want to make concrete plans either. I'm worried the conversation will either ruin what we have now (if we decide not to stay together) or put too much pressure on us to work perfectly (if we decide to stay together).”
How to approach it: Before initiating “the talk,” you should think about what you want out of the relationship. According to Susanne M. Alexander, relationship coach and author of Creating Excellent Relationships: The Power of Character Choices, it’s important to first consider your own values, needs and goals, and to ask yourself questions like:
- Am I willing to be sexually intimate with someone I date?
- Do I see living together with someone as an option?
- Do I want friendship to be a foundation for a relationship?
- Do I see a dating relationship as a step towards marriage?
“When you understand your own direction, it’s easier to have a conversation with a partner,” Alexander says. “You can say something like this: ‘What’s important to me is X, but I’m unsure about what you really want. I appreciate what we have together (be specific). However, it will be helpful if we can talk together about our direction. Are you willing?’”
2. Telling a friend you’re concerned about him or her
You love your friends, and you’d do anything for them. But when it comes to confronting your close friend about a serious issue she’s having, like a drinking problem or an eating disorder, telling your bestie you’re concerned about her behavior isn’t so easy. You want to look out for your friends, but at the same time, you don’t want to come off as being too critical or intrusive.
How to approach it: If you see that a friend is engaging in self-destructive behavior, the most important thing to do is to let her know that you care about her, says Roy Stefanik, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Georgetown University School of Medicine.
“When addressing an issue like this with a friend, the first step is to make sure what you want to address comes out of concern and doesn't sound accusatory or put the friend on the defensive,” Sefanik says. “For instance, if a friend has a drinking problem, you can start with, ‘I know this has been a rough semester for you since your breakup with X, your struggle in classes, your fights with your parents, etc.’ It tells your friend you're aware of his or her problems, and it reflects an empathic stance.”
Keep in mind that you don’t want to come off as being overly confrontational. “Before you suggest he or she has a drinking problem or eating disorder, wait and let your friend have an opportunity to address it before he or she becomes angry and digs in his or her heels,” Stefanik says.
When you’re addressing the specific concerns, stick to the facts. For example, you could say something like, “Last night I (or your friends) heard (or saw) you vomiting before the party,” or “You hooked up with (person’s name) Friday night and you don't remember.”
The next step is to offer your friend a way to get help. According to Stefanik, “referring to counseling and psychological services departments or student health on a college campus can help in identifying students with serious problems and helping the individual get treatment.”
Finally, if your friend refuses to get help, the best thing you can do is let her know that you’re there for her. “Just because he or she won't get help this time doesn't mean the friend won't get treatment in the future,” Stefanik says. “It may take some time to help them change his or her mind. All you can do is plant the seed.”
3. Talking to a friend about her relationship
Whether you don’t like your friend’s new guy or you think that she’s moving too fast in her relationship, voicing your opinion on someone else’s love life is a tricky business.
“I recently had the, ‘I don't think you're ready to move in with your boyfriend’ talk with one of my close friends, and it was definitely not fun,” says Taylor*, a junior from the University of Rochester. “I tried to give her rational and practical reasons: By next semester they'll be out of their ‘we just started dating and are so happy’ honeymoon period, if he started to become super clingy and she became uncomfortable she wouldn't be able to escape it, they might start getting into fights if they lived together, etc. I didn't want her to think I was attacking her relationship by asking what would happen if they broke up, so I focused on whether or not this decision would be the best thing to keep their relationship strong and to ensure her own personal happiness.”
How to approach it: Before getting involved in your friend’s relationship, ask yourself whether the situation warrants an intervention. “Intervening in a friend’s relationship requires sensitivity. If there is a safety issue, then you will step in,” Alexander says. “However, usually what to do or say arises when a friend asks you for relationship advice. It is wise to avoid acting like you know what is right for another person. A good technique is to ask questions that help your friend sort out her own thoughts, feelings and answers.”
Alexander suggests asking your friend:
- What is working well in your relationship?
- When do you your communications go off track? What would work better?
- What are you learning in the relationship?
- What can you do differently to improve the situation?
In many cases, it’s better to let your friend figure it out on her own. After all, do you really want to tell your friend to dump her BF only to have her resent you for it later?
However, if the relationship is physically or emotionally unhealthy for your friend, it’s time to intervene. Don’t focus so much on your opinion of the guy or the relationship in general; instead, state the facts and let her know that you don’t want to see her get hurt.
“For example, if she tells you her boyfriend stood her up because he had to study, and you've just seen him out with some other girl (and they weren't studying), you can certainly tell her this,” says Carole Lieberman, psychiatrist and author of Bad Girls: Why Men Love Them & How Good Girls Can Learn Their Secrets. “You can be a sounding board for any concerns she brings up about her boyfriend, but you shouldn't direct her to dump him unless there is something dangerous about him, such as a violent temper or substance abuse.”
Be honest, but ultimately, let your friend make the decision herself. “If the friend solves the issues for herself, she can’t blame you for potentially bad advice!” Alexander says.
Taylor says she’s still hoping her friend will change her mind, “but she pretty much decided to room with him because he doesn't have other rooming plans for next semester and she doesn't want to ‘ditch him.’ Even though the conversation didn't go the way I hoped, I feel good that I expressed my concerns. If things do go sour with the boyfriend next year, I'm hoping she'll know she can come to me, because I ultimately want what's best for her.”
4. Ending a toxic friendship
Toxic friends are the worst. They undermine you, compete with you, constantly try to one-up you, zap your energy and try to bring you down, all the while pretending to be your bestie for life. If your friendship feels less like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and more like Mean Girls, that’s a sign you need to end it ASAP.
Of course, this is easier said than done. “It's hard to get rid of a frenemy because there's no ‘script’ for breaking up with a ‘friend,’” says Jessica Rozler, coauthor of Friend or Frenemy? “So much energy is focused on giving advice for romantic relationships, but there isn't much out there for dealing with friendships—which play a huge role in all of our lives.”
How to approach it: Ending any relationship is hard, and it must be done carefully if you want to avoid a big, dramatic blowout. According to Rozler, it’s best to be direct. “Pick a time when it's just the two of you,” she says. “When you talk, stress that you're not attacking her. Try using, ‘I feel’ language rather than accusatory statements.
“For example, rather than saying, ‘You're always trying to one-up me, and good friends don't do that,’ try something like, ‘When you brushed off the fight I had at work the other day, it really hurt my feelings,’” Rozler says. “There's a chance that your friend isn't realizing the impact of her words or actions and that your friend could try to correct some of these behaviors.”
5. Talking to your parents about your career plans
It seems like every other phone call from your mom inevitably includes questions about your job or internship hunt. “A really big [conversation] I'm avoiding right now with my parents is, ‘How is your job search going?’” says Annie Pei, a senior from the University of Chicago.
The closer it gets to summer or (gulp) graduation, the harder it is to avoid those nagging conversations, but adding “finding a job” to your list of responsibilities is the last thing you want to think about.
How to approach it: Before you roll your eyes and say “I know, Mom!” for the millionth time, consider whether you’re putting enough time into your job search as you should be. If not, set aside some time to crank out a few applications. But if you’ve been job-hunting like crazy and not seeing results, explain to your parents that you’ve been taking all the necessary steps and that you have a clear plan.
“I still try to prevent any awkward questions that might come up, though, by talking about the jobs I've sent applications to. That way, my parents know that I'm actively applying and initiating my own job hunt, so they're less worried,” Annie says. “They don't need to worry that their daughter isn't doing anything to plan out her future. They can rest assured that the process is going to take some time, but they know I'm on it.”
By responding logically and calmly and not just blowing them off, you can show your parents that yes, you care about your future just as much as they do, and that you’re on top of the situation (no nagging necessary).
Are you avoiding a difficult talk that you know you need to have, or do you have advice for tackling awkward conversations? Let us know in the comments below!
*Names have been changed.