Say What’s Not Being Said: Reid’s Formula for Difficult Conversations

by Reid on March 20, 2012

A heterosexual couple not speaking to one another during an argument while wearing matching white turtlenecks sitting in a modern kitchen
It’s what you’re not saying that’s destroying your relationships…

The plain truth of intimacy is this: It’s what we’re not saying in our relationships that’s slowly killing them. Withholding the important and even the trivial, over time, fosters resentment and mistrust, eroding intimacy. And it’s not just the negative stuff that we don’t say that’s detrimental; withheld acknowledgments and appreciations are just as toxic to the health of intimacy and connection as withheld frustrations and upsets.

People should be talking about the scary stuff and sharing the things that they are afraid will end the relationship. Until we do that, we’re spending our relationship lives “walking on eggshells.” It is my belief that risking ending a relationship by being honest and transparent leads to a more fulfilling life than 5, 10, 20 or more years of “not rocking the boat.”

If sharing with a loved one your scariest and most shameful wants, fears and desires ends the relationship, I think you’re both better off in the long run. How many people do you know who “stuck it out” only to arrive at the end of their lives with a boatload of regrets, resentment and disappointing “I wish I’d _________ when I was younger” to show for it? Of the ones who did stick it out and were the better for it, I’d wager that they were more honest and transparent in their relationships (and, my bet is that their Relationship Venn diagram avoided the 3 major relationship metric mistakes most people make).

A Case for Transparency

UK Big Brother season 2010, kissing through glass

If you share the things you think might end the relationship and the relationship doesn’t end, now you’re having a Relationship with a Capital R! Sure it’s scary to say the scary things, and it’s bound to kick up a lot of emotional flotsam at times, but what if you and your partners could work through it? What if letting the “cat out of the bag” built more trust and a deeper sense of security and intimacy than wondering if your partner is withholding important things from you?

When you say what is not being said, especially the big, bad, hairy, scary stuff, you model for your loved ones that they can share all the things they’re not saying, too. Over time, you get to know your partners more, they get to know you more, and you’ll realize that they’re choosing to be in a relationship with the real you, not some façade of who you think they need you to be.

Granted, it’s no bed of roses starting the process of transparency, but once you begin to exercise your “what’s not being said” muscles, having difficult conversations become so much easier and, pretty soon, you’re living a life where you’ve got nothing to hide from those you care about. You and your loved ones have begun to release all the energy it once took to hide those bits and facets of yourselves. This freed up energy and bandwidth are now yours to express in the world and in your relationships!

Is It Ever Inappropriate To Have a Difficult Conversation?

Tired, upset black woman feeling worried and her male partner in the background with his back turned to her.

Sometimes we convince ourselves not to speak up because society and our families taught us that it’s not polite or “not the right time” to bring up uncomfortable topics.

If you’re waiting for the “right time” to start the conversation and you’ve been waiting for more than 3-days, I assert that the “right time” may never come. I’m of the school of thought that it’s better to speak up than remain silent; however, as a cis white man, I’ve had to learn the hard way that there are exceptions to this rule! There may be times when it’s actually not in everyone’s best interests (or it’s much, much more complicated) to have a difficult conversation.

You might be thinking, “But, Reid, the truth will set us free! Transparency and radical honesty sooner rather than later will save us!” While I believe this to be true fundamentally, communication is like landing an airplane… Blurting out the truth is akin to smashing the plane onto the runway: Technically, you did land it, but at what cost? Smooth, easy, and taking into account the safety and mental state of those on board makes for better results. When making your final approach, there are complex things to pay attention to.

Pilot's view from a commercial airliner airplane flight cockpit during approach/landing

Before you announce, “This is your captain speaking. I have a difficult conversation I’d like to start with you,” take a pause and ask yourself, “Are there any extenuating circumstances and/or power dynamics at play that, if I took them into account, might benefit all parties involved?

Extenuating circumstances like a recent loss or big shift in the person’s world (or your own) might be a perfectly reasonable excuse to delay having a difficult conversation. But how long do you put it off? 6 days? 6 weeks? 6 months? There can be a fine line between being considerate and being avoidant. When in doubt, ask a few, high-integrity friends whom you know to be kick-ass in relationships for their opinions (Bonus points if you also ask your therapist!).

It’s also wise to take into account power dynamics when considering initiating difficult conversations.

What qualifies as a power dynamic? Things, like being a person’s boss or representing the opportunity of a paying gig for someone, can make initiating a 1-on-1 difficult conversation very complicated. Relationships where the financial or social power is on your side (you earn the money, you have all the friends) can also add hard-to-track complexities and put undue burden on the other. It feels counterproductive to think you being open and honest can have unintended impacts, but it’s possible. And those impacts could prevent the other person from receiving your communication the way you intended it.

When you’re attempting to have a difficult conversation, anything you can consider before hand that might make it easier on everyone involved is a smart investment of your communication prowess. An ounce of prevention beats a pound of hurt feelings and resentment!

I suggest reading Cathy Vartuli’s 7 Ingredients To Avoid Missed Opportunities for starters on things to consider. I also think it’s wise to bounce your thoughts and ideas off a therapist or trusted mentor. Getting a second (or third) pair of eyes and brains looking over your situation can give invaluable insights and perspectives you might be missing. It’s not that you can’t ever have a difficult conversation, but a question of caring enough and being savvy enough to find ways of having it that decrease existing power imbalances. If you’re stumped, reaching out to others more versed in such dynamics for their take is a great habit to build!

I know, it sounds like a lot of extra work, and there are no guarantees that you’ll get everything 100% right even when you do ask for assistance, but being honest with people can be very challenging for folks. Anything you can do to make it less challenging can often improve the chances for successful outcomes. And that’s what you’re looking for, right? So why not stack the deck in everyone’s favor by putting some extra attention into these key areas? It’s also a sign that you care about people as much as you care about communicating your truth. 

Once you’ve done your due diligence, then, by all means, grab your handy Difficult Conversation Formula script, take a deep breath, and give it a go!

Reid’s “Say What’s Not Being Said” Difficult Conversation Formula

Albert Einstein at the blackboard writing Reid Mihalko's Difficult Conversation Formula

Many people don’t know how to initiate a Difficult Conversation because no one ever taught them how. I recommend this “formula” for sharing concisely and responsibly what it is you’re not saying. Thousands of men and women I’ve worked with, coached or lectured to over the years have found this “script” invaluable.

Use Step 1 to gain clarity on what you’re not saying and to whom in your world, why you’re not saying it, and what you’d like to gain by saying it. Then use the script in Step 2 to make initiating a difficult conversation easier.

The script in Step 2 allows you to build context and communicate your intentions while allowing you to share what it is that you’ve been withholding. I’ve actually had coaching clients print out and read directly off the paper, and you can too! Remember, it’s that you initiated the conversation which begins to make all the difference.

In another post I’ll talk about how to handle situations when saying what your not saying catches your partners by surprise and they don’t handle the new information well.

Best of luck and let me know how the “Say What’s Not Being Said” Difficult Conversation Formula works for you!

Get Your FREE Downloadable Worksheet Below!

Reid’s Difficult Conversation Formula In 2-Steps

Step 1 – Prepping Your Difficult Conversation

Step 1: Find some time alone and write down the answers to the following questions, in the order they appear… Just write for 3-5 minutes on each question, non-stop. Try to keep the pen moving or your fingers typing for the full 3-5 minutes. Write all the crap swirling around in your head and get it on paper or a computer screen. If you get stuck, write: “I’m stuck. I can’t think of anything…” until your brain unsticks itself. Keep moving!

A. What I’m not saying to ___(my partner, my boss, my sibling)__ is ___________________.

B. What I’m afraid might happen if I say it is ___(Remember, you’re brainstorming! Your list can’t be too long! The longer the better!)___.

C. What I’d like to have happen by saying this is ___(Write down all the positive things you can think of!)____.

Step 2 – Organizing Your Difficult Conversation 

Step 2:  Cut and paste your answers into this this script below which will be the script that you can memorize or read from when you talk to so and so. It can also be the script that you use to email them, etc.:

Dear ___(partner, boss, sibling)__, there are some things I’ve not been saying to you.  I’m not saying them/haven’t been able to say them, because I’m afraid the following might happen:

  • (Answers from B here)
  • (Answers from B here)
  • (Answers from B here)

What I would like to have happen by my telling you is:

  • (Answers from C here)
  • (Answers from C here)
  • (Answers from C here)

And what I’m not telling you is (Answer from A here).

Thank you for listening. What, if anything, would you like to share?

An Example…

Here’s an example of a Difficult Conversation Formula Script all filled in with a situation which, unfortunately, might be all too common these days…

“Dear partner, there are some things I’ve not been saying to you.  I’m not saying them, because I’m afraid the following might happen:

  • You will lose all respect for me
  • You’ll divorce and leave me
  • You will take the kids away and I will never see them again
  • You will never forgive me and I’ll have no chance of rebuilding your trust in me

What I would like to have happen by my telling you is:

  • For you to know that I would never lie to you and that you trust me more
  • That when I lie or hide something from you, I’ll try to come clean as quickly as I can
  • That we reach a deeper level of love, trust, and intimacy in our relationship
  • That we role model for our children that it’s possible to make it through tough times

And what I’m not telling you is I was let go from my job a week ago and I was too afraid and ashamed to tell you and I’ve been spending my days at Starbucks applying for jobs without much success yet.

Thank you for listening. What, if anything, would you like to share?”

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[Edited to Add: Feb 1, 2019 – the When Is It Inappropriate To Have a Difficult Conversation? section, and edits for grammar.]

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Lilita Tannis March 20, 2012 at 4:31 pm

This is a fantastic link. Thanks Reid. Lilita


Caroline March 21, 2012 at 3:55 am

Really like the written steps idea, what a healthy way to deal with those conversations, thanks for sharing this


eric April 6, 2012 at 10:09 pm


Excellent point and post! Most of us know the importance of fostering intimacy, but its great to see an explicit way to share things that we believe will harm our relationships. THanks!


Colin April 7, 2012 at 1:04 am

This is so poetic…

I had one of those conversations last night. I started at step 3 – it took her by surprise and she didn’t handle it well.

I like the process and steps you outlined. It’s something I want to put into practice, spent too much time holding back.


Reid April 7, 2012 at 1:10 am

Congrats on being bold, Colin, and my heart goes out to you that your partner didn’t handle it well.

And, for what it’s worth… Many people don’t handle new information well. Even the most well contextualized information can land on some people like a surprise.

Did you think it was that you started at Step 3 that made it difficult for your partner? Looking back now, what would you have altered?

Again, THAT you spoke up and shared… Congrats.

Let me know how I might be of support.



SamR April 7, 2012 at 7:38 am

Good advice Reid. The script is structured into FEARS, HOPES and *then* the PROBLEM. This frames the possible reactions ahead of time, and I think helps disarm the situation. Like it (as always!)


Edie Weinstein August 6, 2013 at 7:44 pm

Great stuff here! You are healing the planet one relationship at a time, Reid. One thing I have started using with clients is “What I love about getting close(r) to you is…. and what I fear about getting close(r) to you is….” A book that was written by a friend of mine named Nancy Dreyfus is called Talk To Me Like I’m Someone You Love and it comes in handy with difficult conversations. <3


Dawn Fortune May 7, 2014 at 9:14 pm

I just did a consult with a colleague who wants to become a better lover. I think they were hoping for technical advice, but aside from a basic anatomy lesson, what they got was a link to this formula. Communication is the best way to please a partner, for sure. I am so glad you’ve got this laid out so clean and simple. What a great resource! <3


Gin September 8, 2014 at 8:42 pm

I’ve used this with my mother, best friend, and partner. And it’s never failed me. Even in circumstances when I risked loosing someone I loved, this combination led to successful and productive conversations.
I think the beauty of this equation, is that you really do make yourself vulnerable but because you prepared, you feel in control. Because it makes me think about my word choice, I don’t feel like I’m scrambling or chaotic. It is an efficient vehicle for communicating my feelings and I’m really thankful that it exists.


Reid September 9, 2014 at 1:39 am


Thank you SO much for the kind words and for taking the time to share your experience using the formula, and it’s results!

You rock!


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