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The “Three Times Rule” for Starting Difficult Conversations

rule starting difficult conversations

I have found that there is a useful way to frame and approach difficult conversations. I call it the “three times rule.” It refers to the fact that if I find myself returning to an incident or exchange with someone on more than three occasions, then I use the three times rule to bring it up.

Here is an example.

Me: “Hi, Janet. I was wondering if we might find a time to talk.”

Janet: “Sure, what is up?”

Me: “Well, we had an exchange the other day that I wanted to discuss with you. You see, I have this rule that if something happens, and I find myself thinking about it afterwards on three or more different occasions, then that is a signal that I should bring it up. I found myself thinking about an exchange we had a week or so ago several times over the week so I wanted to talk with you about it.”

Janet: “Ok. I am not sure if I know what you are talking about. It is when I made that comment about your theory?”

Me: “Yes, that was the thing. I want to be clear upfront that I am not sure exactly what you meant by it or what to make of it. I just wanted to let you know that it activated something in me and I wanted to share that with you.”

Janet: “So, can you tell me what you were thinking or what you reacted to?”

Me: “Yes. So, everyone knows that I am definitely obsessed with my theory. So, at one level when you said that ‘it was all I cared about’ I can see what you mean. But it was the way you said it. Or maybe the way I heard it. I don’t know, it just seemed a bit disrespectful or hurtful. I guess I heard it as though you were saying I some complete narcissist who only cared about my theory. Maybe I am projecting but that is how I heard it. Or, that is how a part of me heard it. And I found myself going back to it more than three times over the past week, so here I am sharing that with you just to let you know.”

Janet: “Huh. Well, I really did not mean that I thought you were a complete narcissist, I just was saying that you are obsessed with your work. I did not mean to hurt your feelings.”

Me: “Thanks for that. Like I said, I knew it might have come from me. It is just that I do have some complicated feelings about my work and my relationship to it and how it connects to others. Maybe I was putting that on to your comment more than I should have. But I figured you would want to know because it did affect me. And now hearing your feedback helps me see that it was not your intent.”

I have found in my clinical work that many people have difficulty knowing how to “process” feelings about their relationship.

Read 3 Tips To Create Conversations That Are Worth Having In Your Workplace

Process talk refers to when you shift perspective from the normal everyday content (the “what” of the conversation) to processing the feelings and the relationship dynamics (the “how” of the conversation).

The “Three Times Rule" for Starting Difficult Conversations

This is an unusual way of talking that does take practice.

The “three times rule” is one simple tactic for framing the conversation. 

There are some additional principles to guide process discussions.

First, as this example opened, let the person know that you would like to find a time to talk.

This alerts the person that there is something important to discuss and allows the frame and context to be set.

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Gregg Henriques, Ph.D

Dr. Gregg Henriques is a Professor of Graduate Psychology at James Madison University in the Combined-Integrated Doctoral Program in Clinical and School Psychology. He received Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Vermont and did his post-doctoral training at the University of Pennsylvania, working with Dr. Aaron T. Beck. His primary area of scholarly interest is in developing a “unified metapsychology framework” for both the science and practice of psychology. Toward that end, he has authored the book, A New Unified Theory of Psychology and developed a popular blog on Psychology Today, Theory of Knowledge, where he has authored over 350 essays on psychology, philosophy, politics, and mental health. He is the founder of the Theory of Knowledge Society, a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, and has won numerous awards for teaching, scholarship, and service, and published dozens of articles in leading academic journals, including the Journal of the American Medical Association, American Psychologist, and Review of General Psychology. A licensed clinical psychologist, he has expertise in theoretical psychology, unified approaches to psychotherapy, psychological well-being, personality functioning, depression, and suicidal behavior. See his home page at Author posts