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3 Steps To Bring Up An Issue In Your Relationship Without Starting A Fight

Rachel Wright, LMFT
Psychotherapist By Rachel Wright, LMFT
Psychotherapist
Rachel Wright, LMFT, is a psychotherapist recognized as one of the freshest voices on modern relationships, mental health, and sex. She has a master's degree in Clinical Psychology from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology and has worked with thousands of humans worldwide.
I'm A Couples' Therapist: This Is How To Bring Up Issues Without Starting A Fight

As a therapist that specializes in relationships, one of the most common things clients ask me about is how to start and have conversations with people in their lives. Whether it's their partners, bosses, friends, parents, or anyone else, it can feel daunting to have a conversation about something important and potentially difficult.

How do you start it? How do you express your thoughts and feelings in a way that doesn't sound accusatory? How do you express what you want to be different without just saying, "Change your behavior, k thanks!"

Well, look no further. I've got you covered. 

Combining a handful of communication techniques and theories, I've come up with a three-step framework (that actually has four steps) to help you have a conversation with anyone in your life. This technique has been used by CEOs, kids, parents, and educators — literally anyone can use this. The acronym for this framework is AEO, which stands for acknowledge, explain, and offer. But before you jump into AEO, there is one other step.

Ready? Let's go. 

Step 1: Ask for a time to talk. 

Have you ever been emptying the dishwasher, and suddenly, your partner comes up to you and starts talking about something important? Or maybe you're at the copier at work, and your boss walks over and drops something on you. Or you're on the phone with a family member, and they tell you something that rocks your world? Yeah, it's no fun to be blindsided.

We often talk about consent when it comes to sexual interactions, and as a sex therapist, I believe that consent is just as important when talking about communication. Let's normalize consenting to conversations. How does this look?

Here are three examples:

  • "Hey, I have something I want to talk to you about. It's about our sex life. When would be a good time to talk?"
  • "So, I've been doing a lot of thinking about our financial situation and want to find a time to chat. When is good for you?"
  • "There have been a lot of changes here at the office, and I want to talk to you about some things I've been thinking about. When do you have time in your day? Or, if not today, this week?"

All three of these examples allow the person receiving the information to decide when is good for them to step into a container of conversation. While the information given may still feel blindside-y, they aren't being blindsided by the conversation. 

So, you've asked for a time to talk, letting the person know what the general theme of the conversation is going to be. Once you're actually sitting down to have the conversation, it's time to get into A-E-O.

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Step 2: A stands for Acknowledge.

This step is all about acknowledging the elephant in the room and/or the reality of the situation. Here are some examples of acknowledgment statements with varying topics:

  • "I know we haven't had sex in a few months and haven't talked about it at all."
  • "I know that talking about money has been historically really hard for both of us."
  • "I know that things have been stressful in the office lately."
  • "I know that the last two years have been absolute hell for you."

Notice that all of these acknowledgment statements start with "I know…" and continue on to validate the reality of the situation or name the elephant in the room. When you think about talking to the other person about whatever it is you want to talk about, and you imagine them replying by saying "yeah, but…"—whatever comes after that "but" is probably a good acknowledgment statement. 

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Here's an example: Your friend calls and tells you that they're feeling hurt because, over the last few months, they haven't heard from you as much as you used to talk. You may reply, "Yes, but the last few months have been really hard because of everything with my job…" right? What if they started the conversation with, "I know that the last few months stuff with your job has been super hard." With this statement, you immediately feel validated, defenses go down, and you're more likely to listen to what they have to say next. 

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Step 3: E stands for Explain.

This is where people typically start conversations. We start by explaining what we're thinking and how we're feeling—and sometimes, these two things get mixed up. Have you ever heard someone say, "I feel like you," or "I feel that…" Those are thoughts disguised with the starting part of "I feel."

When we use the word "feel," it's really important that we're actually talking about a feeling, whether that be a physical sensation or an emotion. When I ask someone how they're feeling, I am not asking what they're thinking. If I want to know what they're thinking, I'll ask that. Try and catch yourself if you're doing this in your life (99% of people I know do this). 

The Explain step should follow this structure:

  • "I feel/felt (emotion) when (situation or action that created the emotion)." 

Here are some examples of what this could look like, continuing from the A statements used above:

  • "I feel disconnected when we don't have any form of physical intimacy."
  • "I feel scared when you bring up our money situation."
  • "I felt disappointed that you missed your deadline last week."
  • "I feel sad and let down when you don't return my phone calls and don't respond to my text messages. I feel hurt when I'm the only one attempting to connect."

When we phrase things in this format, it takes the blame off the person while still letting them know how their actions affected us. Rather than starting a conversation off with "you never call me and clearly don't care about our friendship," it allows the person to understand you're hurt, sad, and let down rather than trying to infer that from an intense statement of blame. 

If you feel challenged by identifying your emotions, check out these scripts. The last page of them is a feelings sheet—because yes, there are more feelings than just happy, sad, and angry. 

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Step 4: O stands for Offer. 

Even if we manage to naturally express our feelings and what's helping to create them, we often leave it at that. I like to tell my clients that it's like taking a fiery basketball of feelings, passing it to the person they're talking to, and saying, "OK, now you fix it." Sound familiar? Whether you've been on the passing end or the receiving end of this, it can leave you feeling confused and unsure of what to do next. Even the person having the feels may not know what they need or want next, which can create more strain and conflict.

So, how do we avoid this? The person who is talking needs to take the time before sharing to think about what they want from the person they're talking to. We need to help the people we're talking to help us—and we can do that by sharing kindly, as calmly as possible; using this framework; and giving them a potential solution (or at least a step in the right direction). That's the Offer statement.

What does an Offer statement look like? Continuing using our examples above, it could sound like this:

  • "I would love to figure out ways to connect physically, even if it isn't sex or even sexy. How does that sound?"
  • "It would help me feel less scared if we had a scheduled time to talk about our finances, so neither of us has to worry about bringing it up out of the blue. What do you think?"
  • "I need you to be on time with your deadlines and communicate with me if it's going to be late. Can we agree to that?"
  • "What I would really like is if you reached out to me, even once a month. Maybe even set a reminder on your phone to do it. I don't care if it's a reminder that makes you remember; I just want to hear from you. Do you think that's possible?"

Notice that each of these statements is a clear ask followed up with a question. We're not trying to tell someone else what to do—we're giving them an option of something that can help the situation we're talking about. Ending with a question gives them an opportunity to say yes or say no and offer an alternative solution.

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AEO in action.

Before we get into why this framework is so helpful and how you can implement it, I want to put these examples together so you can see the full A-E-O experience after asking for a time to talk. 

Example No. 1: Sex life with a partner

  • Acknowledge: "I know we haven't had sex in a few months and haven't talked about it at all."
  • Explain: "I feel disconnected when we don't have any form of physical intimacy."
  • Offer: "I would love to figure out ways to connect physically, even if it isn't sex or even sexy. How does that sound?"
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Example No. 2: Money (with a family member or partner)

  • Acknowledge: "I know that talking about money has been historically really hard for both of us."
  • Explain: "I feel scared when you bring up our money situation."
  • Offer: "It would help me feel less scared if we had a scheduled time to talk about our finances so neither of us has to worry about bringing it up out of the blue. What do you think?"

Example No. 3: Deadlines at work

  • Acknowledge: "I know that things have been stressful in the office lately."
  • Explain: "I felt disappointed that you missed your deadline last week."
  • Offer: "I need you to be on time with your deadlines and communicate with me if it's going to be late. Can we agree to that?"

Example No. 4: Long-distance friendship

  • Acknowledge: "I know that the last two years have been absolute hell for you."
  • Explain: "I feel sad and let down when you don't return my phone calls and don't respond to my text messages. I feel hurt when I'm the only one attempting to connect."
  • Offer: "What I would really like is if you reached out to me, even once a month. Maybe even set a reminder on your phone to do it. I don't care if it's a reminder that makes you remember; I just want to hear from you. Do you think that's possible?"

Tips to implement this framework for the first time.

While you can just pull it out of nowhere, I'd encourage you to share with the person you're going to talk to that you are going to use a framework to express how you're feeling, thinking, and your needs. You can tell them that a therapist who teaches about communication wrote an article about a communication framework that resonated with you and that you want to try and use. That way, when you're speaking potentially super differently from how you typically communicate, they're not thinking "what is going on?" the entire time you're talking. In the beginning, you can even pull out a little cheat sheet that says your A, E, and O statements.

We don't get taught how to communicate effectively and in a healthy way in school, so if this feels overwhelming to you on any level, you're not alone. Continue to learn, read more articles like this, take workshops, and get in the driver's seat of your education as an adult. You can do this.

The takeaway.

This AEO framework is beneficial for both the person using it and the person on the receiving end. As the person speaking, it can feel overwhelming at times to get across your thoughts, feelings, and asks without becoming overwhelmed with emotion, reacting to how the person you're talking to is looking, or just forgetting what you wanted to say to begin with.

Using a framework helps you stay on track and helps the person you're talking to follow and track what you're saying. In addition to assisting the listener in track and follow, the way this is set up is more accessible to receive than a word vomit of thoughts and feelings. As humans, we crave structure—and communication is no different. This framework gives the giver and the receiver more structure, which lowers stress for all parties involved. 

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Great relationships start with great sleep*

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