By definition, difficult conversations are, well, difficult! They are unpleasant, uncomfortable, and no one’s idea of a good time. They are also very often exactly the kind of conversations you end up needing to have with your spouse or your ex. Knowing how to handle those conversations, and how to talk to your spouse/ex without losing your cool or making yourself crazy, is an essential life skill.
Yet, many people shy away from having difficult conversations because they don’t think they’re any good at doing them. It’s almost as if they believe there is a “difficult conversation” gene, and that they missed out on getting it!
The truth, though, is that the ability to talk about tough stuff with difficult people is not a genetic trait. It’s a skill. That means you can learn it. You can learn how to have a rational conversation with your ex even if you and your ex haven’t had a civilized conversation in years.
But you have to be committed to doing what it takes to have that kind of a break-through conversation.
Learning how to talk to your spouse/ex calmly and productively takes time, patience, and practice. It also takes an enormous amount of self-control.
Yet the benefits can be huge.
Being able to talk to your spouse/ex like a normal human does wonders for your emotional health and your blood pressure. You will become a better parent. You will also have happier kids because they won’t feel like they’re caught in the middle all the time.
But before we dive into the skill of having difficult conversations, it helps to understand the difference between difficult conversations, and difficult people.
Difficult Conversations vs Difficult People
Conversations with your ex can be difficult for a number of reasons. First, they can be difficult because the subject matter you’re dealing with is difficult. For example:
- You may need to convey unpleasant or challenging information (e.g. you have to tell your spouse you want a divorce, or you may have to tell your kids you and your spouse are getting a divorce); or
- You may need to talk about subjects that you KNOW you disagree on (e.g. you want your kids to go to private schools and your ex wants them to go to public schools); or
- You may need to solve a problem that requires your cooperation even though you and your ex can’t stand each other (e.g. your child is acting out at school and you need to figure out what to do about it.)
Another reason that conversations with your spouse/ex can be difficult is simply because your spouse/ex IS difficult.
Those are the MOST difficult of all difficult conversations.
Those are the conversations that push your anxiety into the stratosphere and often end up in screaming matches or stalemates. So, on top of making you a complete emotional wreck, those conversations usually accomplish very little.
The tips I’m about to share with you will help regardless of whether it’s your spouse/ex or the topic of conversation that’s difficult. But, if your spouse/ex is difficult, high-conflict, or narcissistic, you’ll probably need to do more than just follow these tips.
If your spouse/ex is usually reasonable and rational (at least with everyone except you!) these tips can help you manage even those most difficult conversation with him/her.
Step #1: Know Your Point
Before we talk about how to make your difficult conversations with your spouse/ex less difficult, it helps to ask yourself a couple of questions:
- What do I want or need to achieve in this conversation?
- Will having this conversation help me get what I want or need?
In other words, you need to know your objective BEFORE you have the conversation!
Do you need to tell your spouse/ex something important about your kids? Are you trying to persuade your spouse/ex to do something? Are you facing a problem that only both of you can solve?
What do you hope to accomplish by having this conversation?
If you don’t have a very specific reason to dive into a difficult conversation with your spouse/ex, then why do it? That’s especially true if your spouse/ex is difficult, demanding, or intimidating.
Similarly, if having the conversation isn’t likely to help you achieve whatever it is you want or need to do, there isn’t any point in having it. (Unless, of course, you like to fight!)
Here’s a simple test for figuring out whether you should have a difficult conversation with your spouse/ex:
- Do you really NEED to discuss this?
- What’s your goal in having this conversation?; and
- Do you have a reasonably good chance at achieving your goal if you have the conversation?
(NOTE: Sometimes you HAVE to have the conversation because your divorce judgment says you have to do so! If that’s the case, then you may need to have the conversation even if you don’t have a good chance of achieving your goal or persuading your ex to agree with you!)
How to Talk to Your Ex Without Causing a Fight
Once you have determined that you need to have a difficult conversation with your spouse/ex, and you have your objective in mind, it’s time to get clear on HOW to have the conversation in a way that will minimize the conflict. Here are 10 tips that can help you transform a potentially awful conversation into one that – even if it’s difficult – is still civilized.
1. Keep your objective in mind!
Remember step #1. You need to know exactly what your goal is in having this conversation. You also need to remember that goal while you’re having the conversation. That will keep you from going down a rabbit hole and talking about all kinds of things you never intended to discuss.
To keep yourself on track, it helps to write your goal down before the conversation starts. Read it to yourself. Know it by heart. If you need to, write it on a note and refer to it during your conversation. If you feel like your discussion is going off into the weeds somewhere, remember your objective. Stop talking about what doesn’t matter. Focus only on what does.
2. Have the conversation in a neutral place.
While it’s tempting to NOT want to have difficult conversations in public, most people tend to behave better when someone is watching them. So sometimes, a public place is EXACTLY where you should be having a tough conversation.
If you’d rather talk privately, though, make sure that your conversation occurs either on your turf, or on neutral turf. It’s important that you feel comfortable wherever you are, especially when the topic of conversation is NOT comfortable!
3. Prepare in advance!
Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. Know what you want to say, and how you want to say it. Write down your key points. Try to anticipate your spouse/ex’s responses to your key points. Then PRACTICE your talk.
As corny as it may feel to practice your conversation, the more you practice, the better you’re likely to do. (That’s true, by the way, even if what you ultimately say ends up being different than what you rehearsed! You’ll still be able to pull from your memory of what you prepared, rather than standing there like a deer in headlights trying to figure out what to say.)
4. Stick to the facts.
Your ex doesn’t care about your opinions. S/he doesn’t care about what you think is right, wrong, or important. The only thing that can persuade your ex to listen to you (and maybe even agree with you!) are facts.
Whether you’re conveying unpleasant information or trying to persuade your ex to do something, you need facts to back up your points. Gather your facts BEFORE you start talking with your spouse/ex. It’s also helpful if you can point your spouse/ex to the source of your information so that s/he can verify that what you’re saying is true.
5. Avoid name calling, accusations, finger pointing, etc.
This goes hand in hand with tip #4. When you call your ex names or accuse him/her of doing something wrong (even if it’s true!) you invite an argument. Your ex hears your statements as attacks. When you’re attacked you either defend yourself, shut down, or attack back. None of those responses will give you the outcome you want.
Instead of slinging mud at your ex, try using “I” statements. Talk about what YOU think, and how YOU feel. Don’t try to tell your ex what s/he thinks or feels. Most of all, don’t try to tell your ex what s/he should do. That didn’t work while you were married. It’s not going to work now.
6. Keep your eye on the goal!
Remember the objective of your conversation. Focus on that and ONLY on that. This isn’t the time to make small talk or to try to solve every problem you and your ex ever had.
Talking about anything that isn’t directly related to your intended topic of conversation will only pull you off track. That’s when you open yourself up to arguing about stupid and unrelated stuff. Doing that will never help you solve the problem you need to get solved.
Introduce what you want to say, say it, then let your ex talk! Pay attention to what s/he says. Don’t interrupt. Then, when your ex takes a breath, instead of jumping into what you want to say next, ask your ex, “Is there more you want to say about that?” Keep asking that question until your ex has nothing more to say.
Why? Why should you listen first? The reason is that until your ex feels like you have heard him or her, s/he is not going to be able to truly hear what you are saying. So if you want your ex to listen to you, you have to listen to your ex first. (Note that I didn’t say that you have to agree with your ex! I just said you have to listen.)
8. Go into the conversation with an open mind.
There is usually more than one way to solve any problem. You probably think that your way of solving the problem is right. That may be true. But it may also be true that there are other ways you can solve that problem too. Some of them may even be better than yours.
If you focus on solving the problem, rather than insisting that it be solved YOUR WAY, you will have a much stronger chance of achieving your objective.
9. Acknowledge feelings.
Part of the reason that conversations with your spouse/ex can be so difficult is that both of you are probably carrying some emotional baggage around about your relationship. If you want to diffuse those emotions, it helps to acknowledge that those feelings are there – especially if your conversation starts getting heated.
For example, your conversation might be easier if you say, right up front, “Hey, I know that this subject is hard for you to talk about. It’s hard for me, too.” You are not fooling anyone or helping anything if you pretend that you and your ex are emotional cyborgs without feelings. (NOTE: Calling out your feelings doesn’t mean that you need to get into a long, deep discussion about them. Remember, this is problem-solving, not therapy!)
10. Decide whether you want to achieve your objective or prove that you’re right!
If you approach your conversation as a competition, it’s not likely to go well. Adopting a win/lose mindset automatically puts you and your ex at odds. It creates conflict and makes your conversation more difficult.
What you want is to create understanding and compromise. If you want to learn how to talk to your ex without ending up in WWIII, you’ve got to let go of your need to be right. (NOTE: Not only will doing that make your conversation easier, but in the end, you will probably feel much happier too!)
Difficult Conversations Come With The Territory in Divorce
Nothing about divorce is easy. That includes talking to your spouse while you’re going through a divorce. It also includes talking to your ex after you’re divorced.
If you’re lucky, willing to compromise, and you have an ex who is somewhat reasonable, you can find a way to talk to your ex that’s not ugly and uncomfortable. That will make most of your conversations easier.
Yet, no matter what you do, or how hard you try, you are still going to have to have difficult conversations from time to time. That’s just life.
In spite of your best efforts and intentions, not all of those conversations are going to go well.
But, hopefully, by limiting your difficult conversations to those which are truly necessary, and by using these tips to help keep the conversations on track, the difficult conversations you have with your ex will be a lot less difficult.
To learn more about difficult conversations, get Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen of the Harvard Negotiation Project.
To learn more about B.I.F.F. conversations, check out BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People, Their Personal Attacks, Hostile Emails, and Social Media Meltdowns, by Bill Eddy.