The Most Important Thing to Do Before a Difficult Conversation


“You are your choices.” ~Seneca

After four years of radio silence, a former flame appeared in my inbox.

We set up a time to talk later that week. And when the day came, right on time, he called.

We talked. I had many questions. He explained the best he could. The conversation eased into Taoism and Twitter. Totally comfortable.

But for the twenty-four hours beforehand, I was bracing myself.

I was expecting long, awkward silences, angry words, and maybe even a premature hanging up of the phone. In case it’s not clear, things hadn’t ended so well with us.

And if I had lunged into the conversation with all that tightness and fear, I probably wouldn’t be writing these words right now.

Because all my tightness and fear would more than likely have generated tightness and fear in him, and there would be nothing enlightening or inspiring to share out of that.

But thankfully, that’s not how this story pans out.

Here is what actually happened:

I set aside an hour before the call. I didn’t have a plan for what I’d do in that hour. I just knew that it was going to be a time of relaxation and rest.

I sang sweet pop songs while making my bed. I took a long, hot shower. I put on my favorite dress and snuggled with my puppy.

And then I sat cross-legged on my bed and, as Marianne Williamson puts it, I invited the Holy-Holy to “enter where You already abide.”

I meditated on words like “forgiveness” and “compassion.” And I also made room for words like “boundaries” and “clarity.”

The phone rang, and like I mentioned, the conversation went smoothly.

I’ve faced a string of difficult conversations lately and the consistent theme I’m noticing is this:

When I traipse up the stairs in last night’s pajamas with a smudge of peanut butter on my lip and a beeping phone in my hand, I am inviting more of that same messy, jumbled energy into the conversation I’m about to have.

If I want clarity and connection in my relationships, what the heck do I expect to happen when I begin our conversations with restless, twitching unfocused-ness?

What I bring to any interaction is (usually) what I receive from it.

So it boils down to this:

Before walking into tough conversations, we must get clear on who we want to be in that moment.

Before the birth control discussion with your daughter, take ten deep breaths. Remind yourself that you want her to understand the joy of sex and the life-shifting responsibilities it can bring.

Before you take away drunk Uncle Larry’s keys, ground yourself in the love and concern you feel for him and the safety of the other drivers and pedestrians on the road that night.

Before you walk into the big meeting, before you sign the divorce papers, before you say “I do,” pause and ask yourself:

Who do I want to be as I do this thing I’m about to do?

You might choose to be kind, open, attentive, loving.

You might prefer strong, firm, connected, a leader.

Inhale that. Affirm that. Be that.

This doesn’t mean that your body language and words will be in permanent alignment with the qualities you’ve chosen to focus on.

And it certainly doesn’t mean you’ll now morph into some super-human communicator deluxe.

You will still mess up, somehow. That’s part of being human.

But, I believe, you will mess up less.

I believe that when you get deliberate about the intention and energy you want to carry into a conversation or a room, you shift the dynamic.

The context moves from He-made-me-say-it to I choose these words. I choose these actions.

You are no longer floundering around.

You are no longer a victim or a puppet of the circumstances and people around you.

You’re making clear, conscious choices about the person you want to be. That’s what true power is. That’s what it means to create your life.

So before you open your mouth or write the email or turn the doorknob, be clear as seawater about who you want to be in that moment.

And then be that.

Photo by Benson Kua

About Annika Martins

Annika Martins is a spiritual curator, which is kinda like being a museum curator. Except instead of curating paintings, she curates spiritual practices, like art, meditation, and dance. She’s bringing together her favorite spiritual seekers for a revolutionary spiritual conference and she wants to see you there! See the Sacred. Your way. It’s all going down at

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  • Bay Ratt

    Beautifully put. I need to keep reading this and reminding myself. Thinking about it, I can remember times where I had my head straight on how I felt about X situation, and how I was going to deal with it, being firm in my resolve, being clear on my caring, whatever it may have been, but all too often anymore I seem to curl up in a ball in my head & be neurotic about stuff and with the expected results. Thank you for this. 🙂

  • Kathy Gaines

    Need a how-to article regarding when we’re completely caught off guard.

  • Stephen Fraser

    Beautiful piece…the only thing I would add, mostly because I’ve blown it more than once, is that if you do blow it or it gets away from you, don’t be afraid to own that attempt and try it again with a more focused intention…fortunately most people are forgiving and want peace too…on the other hand, if you know you’ve done your best on your end and your intentions are clean, don’t worry about it if it isn’t well received.

  • PrinceofPeace

    wow,this piece made my day and even beyond.Besides the fact that it’s very right on time,it gives me a great insight on how to handle some issues that i have been dealing with.Thank you so very much.

  • Monica

    Annika! We need to read this each time they have to have a serious chat—until we grasp it, of course. Wonderful and insightful post!

  • Beautiful addition, Stephen. Totally. I think that the vulnerability it takes to admit your actions didn’t line up with your intentions will ring true in most people’s hearts. So glad you added that. 🙂 Thanks!

  • So glad to hear it. Wishing you strength and grace in the issues you’ve got before you. 🙂

  • Thank you, Monica! So happy to know it resonated with you. 🙂

  • That’s another great point, Bay – that this is a cyclical experience that we have to keep recommitting to, conversation after conversation. We have to choose to live this way, again and again. Every day. Wishing you more of those clarity moments going forward. 🙂

  • Espe

    Loved this article and the powerful message about shifting the dynamics by bringing deliberate intention with you so that everyone benefits! I would have liked to know how you felt and what happened after that phone conversation-did you feel things were resolved after this conversation (more at peace)?

  • Kathy, check out this other TB piece on being present in difficult moments:

    I think in those caught-off-guard moments, it’s really about finding techniques that help you come back to the present moment, attuning deeply to what’s actually happening in that moment and trusting your intuition about how to respond to it. Some breathwork or an affirmation like “I am here, now. What is needed, now?” might help too. All the best!

  • dyson

    just simply mind blowing annika

  • Carolynne Melnyk

    I really enjoyed reading this. I can see myself trying to be serious on the phone in the messy state, and recall the mess it created. I have a mantra I used that works wonders for all the situations where I have used it. Begin a statement with: I will easily and effortlessly … you complete the statement. This goes well with your advice in making clear conscious choices. The clearer our intentions; the easier things flow.

  • Glad it resonated, Dyson. 🙂

  • Great affirmation, Carolynne. Thanks for sharing that. 🙂

  • Totally agree with everything, if you approach the conversation knowing
    you are not going to offend and be rude with anybody, everything you are
    going to say is only what you are deeply conviced of. Totally aware
    that being convinced is our inner power indeed. No hurt, no need to be

  • lv2terp

    FANTASTIC post/message!!! I love your advice of taking space beforehand to find intention and who we want to be in that situation/interaction! Thank you for much for sharing this insight!!!!! AWESOME!!! 🙂

  • Steve McCann

    great, thanks for sharing & I think it will be very useful for me.

  • jamiejoy

    Also I’ve noticed doing these kinds of centering practices before expected tricky situations gradually begins to shift my behavior in the out-of-left-field unexpected ones, too. We have to work with whatever is right in front of us! Great post, thank you.

  • Totally, Jamie. It’s like working a muscle. As it gets stronger, that strength goes with you everywhere, not just when you’re doing one particular kind of exercise. I love the insights from the Tiny Buddha community commenters. You all rock. 🙂 xo

  • Louise

    I love this, not only for difficult conversations, but for life in general- BE who you want to be, be firm in your resolve. I work from home and every day I struggle to focus and be centred- but then I sit around in messy track pants and flick through Facebook so what do I expect? I need to affirm my intentions to BE who I want to be- I’d like to take time every morning to centre myself! Thank you for this.

  • Reminding ourselves who we want to be at that moment is very important in all aspects of life, especially this one. Stay true to yourself and never let anyone, or anything manipulate you.

  • Preach it, sista! 🙂

  • Glad to hear it, Steve. 🙂

  • Thanks, Espe. I absolutely felt more at peace. Felt good to be centered throughout and after the conversation, instead of antsy and chaotic.

  • You are so welcome. I hope it’s helpful. 🙂

  • Totally. And also, knowing that even if others are hurt/upset by what we have to say, that we’re not responsible for their emotional world. What I think matters most is that we’re living honestly and speaking the truth as we feel it. Authentic self-expression, with the highest intentions. xo

  • Oh yeah. I fully relate to the working from home challenges, Louise (I do also). That’s a great example of how this extends to our everyday lives too. Wishing you the best with your new morning-centering routine. 🙂

  • A moment of calm reflection is a discipline that we should all strive to take. Thanks for the words of wisdom.

  • Danielle Dinh

    Very pragmatic advice. We already know when the difficult conversations will take place so it’s good to come prepared.

  • Wonderful advice! I agree that taking time to prepare yourself in order to be completely present in a conversation makes it go much more smoothly. It’s all about slowing down and committing to one thing.

  • Low Yin Fat

    No matter how wide you open the window, and no matter how much fresh air you think you’re letting in, it’s not going to do much good if you’re still wearing stinky socks

  • vincent

    Thanks for the advice… I applied some of it a few days ago, I chose the words I said… And I was collected. I know the words stroke… but the outcome is still lying in the other’s hands.

  • arketiat

    I’m going to have a difficult conversation tomorrow, but I gave myself a week to think, reflect and meditate on it – and in the end, I am at peace with my choice to have this conversation.

    There were many moments – especially at night – where I felt emotional about the subject and could have sent a rash text message or made a phone call. But I managed to control those urges in a sensible manner and to work through those feelings to feel more relaxed and at ease.

    I’m still a little nervous about tomorrow, but I know in my heart I am doing the right thing.

    Thank you for your article. 🙂