You know that moment in a relationship where you realize you’re going to have to say something or the relationship is going to deteriorate? Do you get that same pit in your stomach I do thinking about the confrontation and the other person’s reaction, or the resulting consequences of the discussion?

I don’t like confrontation in general, but when it comes to our open adoption relationships, my anxiety can go through the roof. Where I might fret a little and watch my words with any other friend, I am careful and meticulous as I try to find just the right way to have these kinds of conversations with our kids’ birth parents, because that relationship holds so much more weight in my life.

Whatever my issue may be, I need to drill to the core of why I have the issue, what I’m asking of the birth parent, and what I hope will happen as a result of our conversation.

Having open adoptions has taught me a lot, and it’s equipped me with tools I never would have otherwise gained in my life. It has strengthened my ability to communicate, to empathize, and to see the flip side of a coin. Where I might have avoided confrontation in other parts of my life, I have grown as a result of pushing myself to have the hard or uncomfortable talks with my kids’ birth families.

One of the things I’ve had to learn over the years is how to discern whether or not an issue really needs to be discussed. Is it something that hurts my feelings a little or brings out my insecurities, or is it something that is negatively impacting my child? Is it something I fear will wear at our relationship to the point of destruction, or is it something I need to work on alone in order to move past it? Is there a behavior I need the birth parent to change in order for my child to have a healthy relationship with him or her? Whatever my issue may be, I need to drill to the core of why I have the issue, what I’m asking of the birth parent (and whether it’s fair), and what I hope will happen as a result of our conversation.  Equipped with these three things, I weigh whether or not talking about something is necessary.

My relationships with my kids’ birth parents aren’t maintained because I signed a contract, or because they’re legally enforceable; they’re maintained because I believe they’re in my kids’ best interest and because I genuinely love these people. We’ve managed to work really hard together to build relationships that are built upon mutual respect, and the best relationships learn how to work through differing communication styles in order to grow together.

It’s important to remember that adoption relationships often don’t have the same time to breathe that other relationships in life do, and are often formed under extreme amounts of loss, grief, stress, and worry. It’s hard to build anything stable under these conditions, which is why it’s important, as the years go on, to keep working hard on learning each other’s communication styles. My kids’ birth moms remind me often, and I have to remind them sometimes too, that this is a marathon, not a race. We have a lifetime to get this right, and—all things considered—we’re doing a pretty good job just by being open and honest with one another, and by putting our child first any time we make a decision.

I’ve found a few things that have really helped my kids’ birth moms and I work through our needs without ruffling feathers or damaging our relationships. These are things that I haven’t just learned by doing it myself, but things I’ve noticed that they do for me to put me at ease so we can have a really productive discussion. I’ve learned more from them about how to communicate, and about how I like to be communicated with, than I have from anyone else in my life.

1 – Schedule some time to talk.

If you want to be sure your discussion is free of distractions, and that no one feels ambushed, schedule some time to talk. I know texting is sometimes easier, but I’ve learned from experience that things can explode when tone and inflection aren’t heard. Out of respect for the sanctity of these relationships, talk in person or over the phone—whichever is possible. Some people prefer to put feelings in emails, but this is a one-sided form of communication that doesn’t allow the back-and-forth that’s often needed for the true progress that can be attained when both people feel heard and understood.

2 – Start the discussion with humility.

You don’t know exactly what to say, and you don’t intend to hurt the other person’s feelings, right? So go ahead and say that. I’ve found that the best way for me to start a discussion, and for a discussion to be started with me, is to say something to the effect of, “I need to talk about something because I really respect and value our relationship. I’m sure I won’t say everything perfectly, but please know my intent isn’t to hurt your feelings and that I’m hoping we can make some progress so our relationship keeps growing stronger.” Make sure you’re saying “I” and not “you” for the majority of the discussion to make issues feel far less personal.

3 – Keep bringing the conversation back around to the purpose: your child’s needs.

Any conversation you’re having should be happening because you believe it will strengthen your relationship and make things more stable for your child as a result. If you notice things getting off track or becoming really personal, try to bring the conversation back around by saying something along the lines of, “My intent is never to hurt your feelings; my intent is to keep our relationship going strong so ________can reap all of the benefits of open adoption. I love you, and I really care that our relationship stays strong, which is why I hope we can keep working through things together.”

4 – If the discussion begins to get heated, stop.

Yelling, crying, finger-pointing, and name-calling isn’t going to get anyone anywhere, ever. If the discussion gets off track and feelings are getting hurt, take a break. If you realize the discussion stands to create more harm than good, ask respectfully to take a break. Excuse yourself from the discussion by saying something along the lines of, “I value our relationship so much, and my feelings are starting to get hurt and I want to keep things respectful for ________’s sake. If we’re not able to do that right now, maybe we can try another time after we’ve had some time to cool off and think about it. I’m not angry, and I love you, and I’m going to think about your points and I hope you’ll think about mine.”

5 – Listen. I mean really listen.

Don’t allow the conversation to be one-sided. Communication doesn’t mean you talk and someone else listens and that’s the end of it. You may think you want one result to come from your discussion, but if you listen to the other person, you may find that it’s your perspective—and not the other person’s actions—that needed to be changed. You’ll never know what needs work if you don’t listen.

Most of all, just lead with love. Keep expressing that the reason you feel the need to talk things through is because you love and respect them, and—more importantly—you love and respect the relationship they have with their child. Our children deserve to have adults in their lives who have uncomfortable conversations when they’re needed, because temporary awkwardness can lead to a lifetime of a healthier relationship.