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 ex. Knowing how to handle those conversations, and how to talk to your ex without losing control or making yourself crazy is an essential post-divorce skill.
Thankfully, because it is a skill, you can learn it. You can learn how to have rational conversations with your ex. You can do that even if you and your ex haven’t had a civilized conversation in years.
But you have to be committed to doing it.
Learning how to talk to your 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 ex like a normal human does wonders for your emotional health and your blood pressure. You become better parents. You also have happier kids because they don’t feel caught in the middle.
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. 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. your child needs braces and your ex needs to pay a portion of the cost); 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.)
Or, conversations with your ex can be difficult just because your 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 ex or the topic of conversation that’s difficult. But, if your ex is difficult, high-conflict, or narcissistic, you’ll probably need to do more than just follow these tips.
If your ex is fairly normal though (with everyone except you!) these tips can help you manage even those most difficult conversation with him/her.
Step #1: What’s Your Point?
Before we talk about how to make your difficult conversations with your 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 ex something important about your kids? Are you trying to persuade your ex to do something? Are you facing a problem that only both of you can solve?
What is the point of the conversation? What do you hope to accomplish?
If you don’t have a very specific reason to dive into a difficult conversation with your ex, then why do it? That’s especially true if your ex is difficult, demanding, or intimidating.
Similarly, if having the conversation isn’t likely to help you do whatever it is you want or need to do, why have it?
When you and your ex were married, it was important that the two of you communicated regularly about the events in your lives. But now that you’re divorced, you have the luxury of only communicating about important things that affect your kids. If you don’t NEED to talk to your ex about uncomfortable subjects, you don’t necessarily have to.
On the other hand, if you and your ex are on friendly terms and you want to talk about other things, that’s awesome! But if not, then having a clear objective for your conversation – especially a potentially difficult one! – can save you an enormous amount of grief!
How to Talk to Your Ex Without Causing a Fight
Here are X tips that can help you transform a potentially awful conversation into one that – even if it’s difficult – is still civilized
KNOW your objective!
Remember step #1. You need to know exactly what your goal is in having this conversation. Write that goal down before the conversation starts. Read it to yourself. Know it. Keep it at the top of your mind during your entire 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.
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 on neutral turf, or at least somewhere that you feel comfortable.
Prepare in advance!
Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. Know what you want to say, and how you want to say it. 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!) It also helps to write out your main points in advance and anticipate your spouse’s possible responses to them.
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. Whether you’re conveying unpleasant information or trying to persuade your ex to do something, what matters are the facts. Talking about anything else – your assumptions or your opinions – will only cause an argument.
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.
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 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.)
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.
Part of the reason that conversations with your 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. For example, your conversation might get way 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!)
Decide whether you want to achieve your objective or prove 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 ex after you’re divorced.
If you’re lucky, willing to compromise, and 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.