Difficult Expat Conversations – How to Create a Peaceful Holiday for Everyone Without Stressing Out (Part I)


The phone is ringing. Difficult expat conversation

“Hello darling, how are you?”

Sally bites her lips. “Oh mum, I’m well thank you. And you?”

“I was wondering when you’re coming for Christmas?”

That was exactly the question Sally had been dreading for weeks. She tried to avoid this conversation, but now five weeks before the date, she couldn’t hide any longer.

“Well mum, you know, we haven’t bought the tickets. Harry’s roster at the hospital isn’t out yet.”

“But the price of the flights are going up quickly. You’d better order now — at least for you and the children, sweetheart!”

“Well mum… I’m not sure. Three years we’ve lived here and we’ve never spent Christmas at our place yet. The kids are teenagers now and they want to see their friends during the holidays. Harry is so tired and stressed with his work. He needs a good rest. Maybe this year… we’ll stay at home.”

Silence on the other end.

Finally, in a sobbing voice, Sally gets to hear:

“Oh, I see. Alright then. I don’t feel like talking any more. Bye.”


That’s a difficult expat conversation.


You dread the moment. You postpone it. But the more you delay it, the worse it gets.

Then mustering all your courage, you prepare to confront, you pick up the phone and…. you change your mind again. Agonizing for days.

The clock ticks. The tension is mounting. When will you resolve this?


Difficult conversations happen to everyone. But for expats, it’s even trickier.


You have to juggle the physical distance between you and your counterpart making face-to-face discussions most of the time not an option.

Living in a different country means you have to deal with time zone differences or language barriers. You face emotional upheaval, being uprooted and evolving in a totally new environment.

You may even surprise yourself: you feel you’re another person with a new role (an accompanying partner becoming a stay-at-home mum or dad for example).

So what can you do to handle those painful and stressful moments?

In their book “Difficult Conversations : How to discuss what matters most”, researchers Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen studied thousands of challenging discussions.

Here’s the wisdom they shared.

A difficult conversation is, in fact, three different superimposed conversations:

1/ The conversation about getting the facts right (what’s really happening? who did/said what?)

2/ The conversation about each other’s feelings (how I feel about your actions or the situation in general)

3/ The conversation about each other’s identity (who I am to myself, to you, to others)

This week, we’re going to explore in details the first piece: the conversation about what happened.

How are we in this mess? Who’s right? Who’s to blame?


When things matter, we’re tempted to make three mistakes. 


Mistake #1

To get our point across and — let’s be honest — have it our way, we want to prove that we’re right and the others are wrong.


Sally had good reasons on her side.

”We travelled last year and spent all our Christmas holidays with my parents. Sure, we also visited other friends and extended family, but we stayed with them for two weeks.

Harry was so tired, he got sick. No wonder with this British winter weather.. We came back exhausted and it took us weeks before we were back to normal.

Mum should understand that we have a life here. Everybody is so busy, between work, school and extracurricular activities. During the week, we hardly share a meal as a family! Holidays and weekends are our only time together.

We can’t be stressed all the time. We need breaks to recharge our batteries.”

On the other hand, Sally’s mum is thinking: “It’s so unfair. I don’t get to see Sally and my grandchildren all year. We can never plan a family gathering, celebrate a birthday, go out together.

Sally’s never around to give a hand. It’s even hard to get her on the phone because of the time zone difference!

She knows Christmas is special for me. Why is it so much to ask for just two weeks in a whole year to see my child and grandchildren? What’s the point of having children after all?”


Secret #1

Stop arguing (if only in your head) about who’s right or wrong.


It’s time and energy wasted. It doesn’t help.


People almost never change without first feeling understood.

Stone, Patton and Heen.

This is why the first step for constructive discussion is to understand their story. And that’s difficult. Particularly with people you know so well like your parents, close family members or friends.

You assume too easily that you know them by heart, but everyone changes over time. Faster than you’d like to admit.

You change too! You’re living far away, you’re not part of their reality any more.

You’re talking by phone. You don’t have the body language clues, the facial expressions, the view of their surroundings. You keep in touch sporadically, through quick emails or occasional pictures.

Be curious about them. Ask questions. Listen attentively.

Of course, this works both ways. In due time, you need to share the bits of your life too.


Mistake #2

In difficult conversations, we think we know the other’s intentions. And worse, we often assume they’re bad!


Sally’s mind races.

“It’s always the same. Mum wants to get things her way. She still thinks I’m her little girl and she can do what she wants with me. But I’m 43!

Maybe she’s happy if Harry can’t come. She never liked him anyway.”

Sally’s mum is desperate.

“Sally is escaping. She refuses to speak to me. Getting her on the phone is impossible. I left five messages on her voicemail and sent three emails. No answer. She sulks.

Why is she angry at me? What did I do to deserve this silence treatment?”

If only Sally had asked! Her mum could have told her she was worried about the degradation of Sally’s dad. Nothing was interesting him any more. She brought him to the doctor and tried to cheer him up, but he seemed to be sinking into depression.

He has also started to become more forgetful.

Sally’s mum didn’t want to worry her daughter, so she never mentioned it on the phone. She was planning to tell her when she saw her face to face.

(True, Harry isn’t her cup of tea. She wouldn’t mind doing without him)

On the other side, Sally wasn’t sulking. She was overwhelmed!

Between Harry travelling for his job, managing the kids and her volunteering activities, running the household, she had little time for herself.

Moreover, she wasn’t feeling well. She had lots of doubts about her professional career and was suffering from a lack of meaningful friends and activities.

Just the thought of coming over was exhausting for her.

She was torn: on one hand, she was looking forward to visiting her parents, uncles and aunties, especially auntie Pauline, her godmother. But on the other hand, she couldn’t imagine going back and not visiting all of their friends.  They would get upset at her, knowing she was in the country and she didn’t say hello. She felt so embarrassed!

Add to this her in-laws complaining they spend too much time in “her” family — counting the days they get in comparison with them. It was so stressful!


Secret #2

Don’t make assumptions. Only hypotheses. And check them out sooner rather than later!


We too often take things personally, believing that behaviors are specifically targeted at us. But it’s almost always about them and very little about us. It’s worth remembering if we want to lessen the drama!


Mistake #3

In difficult conversations, we get easily carried away and put the blame on others.

Sally couldn’t refrain from thinking:

“Mum always wants things her way. She can be so picky sometimes. She’s obsessed with planning but I’m running around all year. During the holidays, I want to relax.

No stress! And her demands get on my nerves!”

Sally’s mum fumes:

“Sally has always got mood swings. One day she’s fine, the day after she’s upset. You never know how to take her. She can be so inconsistent! It’s really tiring.”


Secret #3

Stop accusing each other. Take a closer look at your contributions because you can do something about them.


Sally reflects:

“I’ve been avoiding this conversation for weeks now. I feel so embarrassed. I fear mum’s anger. I’ve been complaining to Harry about her obsessional planning behavior but of course, this doesn’t solve the problem.

I’d better address it with mum directly and quickly.”

Sally’s mum acknowledges:

“I’m anxious, I always want to plan in advance. I need to think about the gifts, the guests, the table cloth, the menu. I’m not so young any more. I need more time than before.

Last year, Harry got sick. I was upset because he left his tissues all over the place and woke me up at night. He was coughing so loudly! I guess that may contribute to their reluctance to come and visit again this year.”


One extra tip

If you find yourself blaming or arguing about who’s right and wrong, it may help to turn inward and have compassion for yourself. I’ve found it soothes the suffering expressed by lashing out on others.

Give it a try!

Oh, the phone rings again.

“Hello Sally? Don’t move. We’re coming for Christmas!’

Wait. This isn’t exactly the outcome you had in mind, right?

Read more about difficult expat conversations: the one thing you can’t avoid and a hidden factor that will knock you off if you don’t pay attention to it.

And in the meantime, share yours if you dare 🙂


Photo credit Earl – What I Saw 2.0 via photopin cc Music credit Piano Society



  1. Great read, Anne.
    Unfortunately my parents can’t travel this far any more but you are so right in your advice on communicating intentions openly.
    Because the grandparents have been visiting for the holidays before, it is somehow easier to spend them on two different continents now: they know 1) how busy a CFO is end of year and 2) that they would be welcome any time so our not going back has nothing to do with not wanting to spend time with them.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. The first year we had my parents visit us for the holidays, they came for three weeks. They got to go to their grandchildren’s band performances, meet their school friends, and got a feel for our new life in a different country. My father even became ill, and when he said they might need to go home to see a doctor, I convinced him to give our local medical connection a try first – he got very thorough, caring treatment and was well two days later, but more importantly he realized that he no longer needed to worry about how his family would be taken care of in this place. It was a fantastic holiday for all of us, and they left with a much better appreciation for all we were loving about our expat experience.

  3. Holger Lindberg Joergensen says:

    Indeed a great read, Anne.

    My parents are long gone so I don’t have any difficult discussion in terms of who is going where. That, however, does mean that Christmas isn’t difficult. Just in a different way.

    Merry Christmas everyone.

    • Thanks a lot, Holger for stopping by. Sorry to hear about your parents. Does it mean that there is no difficult conversation with your in-laws or siblings? In case of mixed marriages when each member of the couple is from a very different culture, it may be easier to negotiate. They can decide to spend each celebration with the family of the involved spouse. This can still be complicated but nevertheless: wishing you lots of joyful and relaxing moments 🙂 Merry Christmas!


  1. […] can you handle with grace the necessary difficult conversations that will arise from planning the next […]

  2. […] told Sally that she needed to have some difficult conversations. But Sally was reluctant. She was scared. She felt guilty. She had such mixed feelings: was she […]

Speak Your Mind