Having Hard Conversations With Those Who Aren’t Living Up to Their Potential

Published on: 04 Mar 2020
Clinically Reviewed by Reshawna Chapple, PhD, LCSW
challenging conversations

Updated on 1/28/21

When’s the last time you felt a friend wasn’t living up to their potential? Maybe they’re working a soul-destroying job that isn’t bringing them fulfillment. Or maybe they’re stuck in a bad relationship with the wrong person.

You know you need to have a tough conversation with your friend. But how? A lot of us tend to avoid confrontation. It’s understandable to be worried that your friend might react badly, or worse: push you away.

Bringing up thorny issues can be really challenging. How do you approach the discussion? How can you address the problem in a respectful and loving way?

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Is it really their problem…or yours?

Before you consider raising an issue with a friend, partner, family member, or loved one — you need to stop and ask yourself whether you should address it at all. There are a couple of factors to consider.

“The challenge in addressing a friend or partner who you feel isn’t living up to their potential is in deciding if it is your problem because it bothers you (that you think they could be doing more) or if you think it truly bothers your friend or partner,” says Talkspace therapist, Jill Daino LCSW.

Be honest with yourself. Is your friend’s happiness and fulfilment your genuine motivation? If not, you will come across as judgemental and this could be extremely damaging to the relationship.

What’s more, there may be some circumstances where just offering your friend support and kindness is more important than a tough-love conversation about not reaching their potential.

“If you think your friend, partner or family member is struggling with depression, anxiety, substance abuse or another serious disorder that is getting in the way of them meeting their potential, [then] the focus should be on providing support and getting appropriate care,” says Daino.

Find the Right Time and Place

If you’ve considered these factors and have concluded that you do want to have the discussion, then the next step is the setting.

“State your need to discuss something and work with the other person to find a good time when neither of you will be distracted,” writes therapist Dr. Carolyn Versical.

The location of your chat should also be quiet and relatively private, to avoid distractions.

“For any potentially difficult conversation, it is important to speak with your friend, partner or family member in a private setting at a time of day when they are more receptive to feedback,” says Daino. “Setting aside time when the two of you are not rushed or tired and have privacy is vital.”

Answering a few questions will help you prepare

Preparing for the conversation is really important, and will help you stay calm and balanced if things get heated.

Dr. Carolyn Versical suggests that instead of going over how you’d like to word things again and again in your head beforehand, you should ask yourself a few questions: “What’s the purpose of the conversation? What is my ideal outcome? What part of the conflict or issue am I responsible for? How am I feeling about having this conversation? How might the other person be feeling?”

If you’re nervous, this could be a good opportunity to practice mindfulness, deep breathing, or grounding techniques.

Raise the Issue With an Open, Non-Judgemental Attitude

So you’ve prepared and found the place, now how do you launch into the discussion?

“These conversations have to be approached gently, as even with the best intentions they can come across as judgmental,” says Daino. “If you have noticed that your friend/partner has been unhappy with what has been happening in their life, there is often a natural place to begin a conversation about steps they could take to improve their situation, be it work, hobbies, or personal.”

What’s crucial throughout the conversation is conveying your support and love for your friend in a totally non-judgmental way. You don’t want to put them on the defensive by being critical.

Daino suggests expressing your concern based on observations or reflecting on things that your friend has said. For instance, maybe they’ve shared examples of being dissatisfied at work or wanting more from their career. You might say something like, “I’ve noticed you don’t seem to enjoy your job as much as you used to. I’m wondering if you have begun to outgrow it?”

This approach can lead to a conversation where you’re not shaming or being judgemental of your loved one. But instead, showing you’re concerned and care about what they’ve already shared with you on their own terms.

“Approach the conversation with openness and an interest in problem solving, rather than needing to be ‘right,’ writes Dan Mager, MSW. “Anytime we see it as a competition where we need to be ‘right,’ it means the other person has to be ‘wrong.’ This kind of rigid either-or, win-lose, or right-wrong mindset makes conflict much more likely and mutual understanding much less likely.”

Mager also advises that you speak calmly in a matter-of-fact tone. “This maximizes the chances that others will hear the content of your message, rather than fixate on your emotions.”

The language you use is really important

As well as the mindset and tone you bring to the conversation, the actual words you use are key.

“Avoid the words ‘always,’ ‘never,’ ‘everything,’ and ‘nothing,’” writes Mager. “These may express your frustration and upset, but they overgeneralize and are fundamentally inaccurate. As part of a communication process, they are unhelpful.”

He adds that you should use “I” statements, as in: “I feel…” which avoids placing blame on the other person.

“It is equally important to avoid telling someone what they should do,” says Daino. “Dictating a solution is usually not helpful as it can make someone feel inadequate or that you think they aren’t able to manage for themselves.”

Stay Calm and Supportive

To conclude, when approaching a difficult conversation — with a friend or loved one who you feel isn’t living up to their potential — first do your preparation. Question what your intentions really are. What do you want to get out of the discussion?

Then, take an open and non-judgemental approach. Use respectful and caring language that avoids laying blame on your friend.

“Staying calm and supportive if your friend doesn’t respond well to your advice is key; remember for your friend it may be very difficult to hear that they’re not fulfilling their potential ,” says Daino. “Let your friend/partner/family member know that you are available to listen, brainstorm, and be a source of support at any point.”

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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