Communication - tips for handling conflict
I see so many people in my practice who are stuck in conflict with their communication with their ex. Sadly, divorce inevitably means that you now need to negotiate all sorts of difficult conversations with the one person who knows exactly what buttons to press, and how to press them.
Negotiation with your ex may have spiralled into a negative swirl of emotions and tit for tat retorts. Even when you seem to be having a civilised discussion, a hot point may arise, and BOOM, the calm, measured conversation you were having is knocked totally off course.
Here’s an example – Sue and Joe can’t agree on a point. Sue lets out an expression of her frustration, and Joe pushes back, or withdraws into silence. As a result, Sue pushes back harder, or shuts down too. Both Sue and Joe can feel their emotions escalating and taking over. They both feel under threat, fearful, uncertain and anxious. Sue is afraid, and threatens to go back on what has already been agreed in the meeting. Joe, who is also feeling afraid, shouts “you’re always like this. I knew I shouldn’t trust you!”. Sue retorts with a sharp, “you never listen to me! I knew it would go like this!”.
And so the cycle continues. Both Sue and Joe are being hi-jacked by their emotions, and the conflict can become heightened very quickly, making agreement almost impossible.
The consequences of this sort of conflict during divorce are numerous. Both Sue and Joe feel under threat, and their already precarious relationship takes a nosedive. Fear is driving their reactions. Neither party can listen to the other, and any opportunity for compromise through effective communication may be lost. The negotiation between them may grind to a halt, while the legal costs mount. Emotionally, both Sue and Joe feel exhausted and angry, and neither understands what really matters to the other. As a result, no settlement is reached, and the negotiations may become protracted and bitter.
The likely outcome is that neither Sue nor Joe gets what they want, or one of them becomes worn down and gives up.
Why does this happen?
Well, our reptilian brain, the tiny part of our brain which is responsible for our survival instincts and self-preservation behaviour patterns, responds automatically to perceived threats. It wants to keep us safe. The response to a threat or fear is usually fight, flight or freeze. In those moments of instinctive reaction, your adrenalin rises, your hearts starts to beat faster, and your ability to rationalise goes awol. That was all very well when our ancestors were faced with a sabre-toothed tiger. In the modern world, and in the context of a divorce where there is a lot of uncertainty about the future, it often results in knee-jerk reactions, and the escalation of conflict. Common reactions to the reptilian brain’s perception of a threat in an argument include criticising or showing contempt (both fight responses), becoming defensive or withdrawing/stonewalling (both either flight or freeze responses).
What tips can I offer to help you to handle the hot conflicts in your divorce?
Firstly, it helps to understand your own responses. Remember that your reptilian brain reacts instinctively in response to anything it construes as a threat, so when you feel the emotions rising, pause, take a deep breath, and ask yourself what is it that you are really reacting to. How are you feeling? Are you feeling uncertain? Attacked? Disrespected? Criticised? Insecure? Afraid? Take time out at this point if you need to, to understand what you are feeling, and to allow the emotions to dissipate.
Then ask yourself what you want instead. Instead of being disrespected, would you like your views to be heard without interruption? Instead of feeling criticised, would you like the other person to acknowledge how hard you are working? Instead of feeling disrespected, would you like the other person to stop shouting, so that you can take in what they are saying?
If a meeting has gone badly, take some time to replay the conversation in your head (or with your coach), with the intention of really noticing where your hot reactions came. What were the triggers? What were you feeling? What is it that really matters to you, and why? How could you start to change your reactions? Remember that if you change your reactions, you will get a different response back.
Now replay the conversation again, with the intention of noticing what triggered a hot response in your ex. What seems to matter to them? Start to be curious about what matters to them, and why. The best outcomes result when both parties are aware of, and mindful of the concerns of the other. You might find what they really want is something that doesn’t matter to you, and you can reach a compromise whereby you can give them what matters to them on one issue, and they will give you what matters to you on another.
Perhaps you have assumed that your ex is pushing your buttons intentionally. It is very easy in a high conflict situation to assume that the other person is provoking you on purpose – most of the time, they are not. They too are busy dealing with their own emotional responses.
Avoid sentences that begin with “you never”, “you always”, or include personal attacks on the other party. When you start a sentence like this, your ex will immediately want to defend rather than hear you. So use “I” statements rather than “you” statements, and ask for specific things, rather than attributing blame. Let go of needing to be right, and keep the end game in sight. What would be the right thing to do?
Set an intention to remain calm and civil. Be clear about your goals and desired outcome before you go into any meetings. Be clear about what you want to achieve, and be prepared to listen. If possible, both agree to listen and take turns talking. Once you have both put forward your perspectives, look to see if there is a common outcome that you are both trying to achieve. For example, do you both want to do the right thing for your children, but can’t agree how that would best be achieved? A mutual recognition that your joint goal is to do the right thing, even if you can’t yet agree on what that looks like, can go a long way to opening discussion. Question yourself about what the “right thing” is in the context – it may not be what you want, but it might be the right thing to do.
Consider in advance what you will do or say if your ex behaves in a way that triggers your hot buttons. For example, if your ex shouts at you or blames you, how could you best react? If your ex often tells you they know best, or accuses you, how could you could react? If you have a plan you are more likely to be able to recognise the hot button, and change your reaction to it. Mentally rehearse this in advance, with your coach or friend playing the part of your ex, until you are comfortable. Just doing this can help to increase confidence and decrease anxiety, making it more likely that you will be able to remain calm.