When disagreements or difficult conversations with our loved ones arise, many of us may cope by using old ways of protecting ourselves like withdrawing, avoiding, and leading with frustration. These approaches can feel better in the short-term, but can also make us less able to identify what we need and how to communicate them more effectively.

If you are struggling to express what you need in your relationship, you are not alone. It can be hard to feel sad, hurt, or angry, and still work to create an environment where we listen to ourselves and to our loved ones.

How to Express What You Need

Here are several tips for expressing what you need in your relationship thoughtfully, so your partner, friend, or family member is given the opportunity to see how they can support and collaborate with you.

1. Remember Where Your Choices Are

Often, people spend energy trying to prevent others from having feelings, which is a very hard thing to do. It sets up this false idea that we are solely or overly responsible for others’ emotions and behaviors.

What I recommend is that we focus our energy on using our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively to identify and clarify what we need and how we want to be in an important relationship. This helps us be clear about what we need. It also helps us offer and receive feedback in a way that feels kind, genuine, and productive.

2. Set a Gentle and Respectful Tone

The way you communicate with yourself and the way you communicate with others should always be described the same way: respectful. Important and very hard to do!

As you discuss what you need from your relationship with your loved one, try to establish clear rules and guidelines. For example, give each person a chance to speak and be heard, identify helpful behaviors you may like, and focus on “I” statements while staying away from criticism and personal attacks.

3. Have an Honest Appreciation for the Other Perspective

Avoid entering into the conflict believing that you alone are right and the other person alone is wrong. During a disagreement, there will likely be a lot of “grey area.”

Make sure each side is able to share their perspective and genuinely try to hear the other person out.

4. Set Boundaries for Yourself

Disagreements can be emotionally challenging. If you are struggling to focus or to be mentally present, if you find yourself being mean or wanting to run away, these are signs that you might need to put the conversation on pause.

Set boundaries that allow you or the other person to take a break. Try phrases such as, “This conversation is really important to me. I’m feeling overwhelmed and want to take a break. Can we come back to this in tomorrow?” Similarly, if you notice the other person getting overwhelmed, ask them if taking a break would be helpful.

5. Practice Care

Even though asking for what we need in a relationship is healthy and necessary, it is still scary. If your conflict has left you feeling overwhelmed or defeated, take time for self-care.

If possible, identify 3-4 things you like to do that help calm you and understand your perspective ahead of time. It could be going for a run, journaling, re-reading something that reflects your values, or talking with a friend. Use these strategies to help to wind down.

6. Change takes Time

Remember that change is hard! Even if it is changing from a communication pattern that isn’t working. Be patient with yourself and with your loved one, and make room for small mistakes. Learn from these mistakes, and let them help clarify what you need.

7. The Other Person Plays a Role

You can do a lot to change your part in a relationship, which can then over time change how the other person responds. That said, sometimes we might ask others for something they are unable or not ready to give us at the time. If this happens, give yourself time to grieve, reassess your expectations, and considering investing in relationships that can give you want you need.

All relationships, including the strongest ones, take thoughtfulness and nurturing. For our relationships to have a chance to do well, we need to create nurturing environments for ourselves as well as for the important people in our lives.