10 tips to help you communicate with your ex more effectively
One of the most stressful things during a separation or divorce can be communicating with your ex, the one person who knows how to press your buttons. If you can create an effective way of communicating with your ex, you will save yourself a lot of stress and heartache. If you have children, this is even more important, because your ex is the other parent, and you will need to have some level of contact.
Here are my top 10 tips for more effective communication with your ex:
Ask yourself what you want the relationship to look like in 1 years’ time/ 5 years’ time / at your child’s wedding
Thinking about the future like this can really bring your goal into sharp focus. Make sure your goal is positive so that it focuses on what you do want, rather than what you don’t.
For example, when I was going through my divorce, I knew I wanted my relationship with my ex to be calm, measured and fair within a year. Further ahead, I want my children to feel they can have us both at their top table at their weddings, should they choose to, with our partners. I want a civil, respectful relationship with my ex and his wife, and I want our children to feel comfortable and relaxed about having a strong relationship with us all. I want people to look at us and comment on what a good example we have set.
That vision has been so strong for me that it has kept my communication on the straight and narrow (mostly!) for over 10 years.
Your vision of your future relationship with your ex might be like mine, or it might be entirely different. If your ex is particularly difficult and challenging, perhaps you would like to have contact only around the children and only over email, that is respectful and within your boundaries. Perhaps your vision for your child’s wedding day is simply to be able to be in the same room.
The important thing is that you have a vision for it, that you can keep in the forefront of your mind.
Keep your long-term goal in mind in all your communication
Keep your vision of how you want the relationship to be, look and feel, at the forefront of your mind.
Every time you communicate with your ex, keep it in your mind, and consider whether your proposed words and actions will take you further towards or away from that goal.
Understand what you can and can’t control
When you communicate with your ex, what can you control, and what can’t you control?
Put simply, you can control anything that is within your power - your own words, actions, behaviours, assumptions, reactions and choices. You cannot control theirs. Of course, you are free to put across your opinion, your perspective. Your ex then has a choice about how to respond.
Once I understood this, it made a huge difference to how I communicated with my ex. I take responsibility for my part in any communication, and he is responsible for his part. Once I understood that he could choose how to react or respond to me, I found that I was less disappointed when things didn’t go the way I wished – instead, I could think about what I could do to move forward. I couldn’t “make him” do anything, but I could consider how I could change my own actions, words and approaches, and see if anything shifted.
See your relationship with your ex as a business relationship
It can be helpful to start viewing your relationship with your ex as a business relationship. This can help take the emotion out of the equation.
If you are meeting in person, have an agenda and stick to it. Prepare in advance, and practice what you want to say.
If you are communicating over email or text, keep emotion out of your messages, and stick to the point. You could set up a separate email or phone account for your ex, so that you can choose when you look at any messages that come in. Remember, you don’t need to respond immediately.
Pause and breathe!
If you find your emotions rising up and beginning to overwhelm you, STOP! Then breathe deeply, before you think and respond.
Breathe in slowly, counting to 5, pause and breathe out again whilst counting to 8.
Notice how your breath really can overpower your thoughts, calm your heartrate and stress response, enabling you to think more clearly.
If you are communicating over email, use the same technique and avoid replying when you are feeling angry or upset. You could decide that you will always leave replying for 24 hours. You may be surprised by the difference a night’s sleep can make to how you feel, and what you want to say.
Notice when you make assumptions about their intentions
An assumption is something that you accept as true without questioning it, without proof. Therefore you don’t ask for clarification. Instead you accept it, you believe it, and you act in accordance with it.
Do you assume you know why your ex is behaving in a certain way? That they are only “doing that to hurt me”, or “to punish me”? Start to notice your assumptions and question them. Are you 100% sure you are right? What else could their intention be? Could you find any shared ground? Could you ask your ex what their intentions are? Remember, they too are going through a divorce, with their own fears, worries and feelings of overwhelm.
Make sure you are clear about your own intentions
State your intentions and make them clear. If your intention is to do the very best you can for your children, then say that. You may find that your ex has the same intention – and then you have a common ground from which to start.
It’s also important to be totally honest with yourself about your own intentions. If, deep down, your intention really is to punish your ex, or to hurt them the way that they have hurt you, first acknowledge that is your intention. Then and ask yourself whether having that intention is really serving you. Is it really the right thing to do? Is it keeping you stuck in conflict?
I remember a lightbulb moment during my separation, when I realised that remaining angry with my ex was only going to damage me. Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. It was eating me up, and he didn’t even know! It was also keeping the negative emotional ties well and truly alive.
Listen to hear, rather than to respond
Often, we listen so that we can work out what our response should be – which means we aren’t really listening. Instead, concentrate on listening to understand where your ex is coming from. Ask questions. Ask them to explain why something means so much to them, so that you can understand.
Speak from the “I”
Avoid sentences that start with “you always” or “you never”, as these are pretty much guaranteed to lead you further into a cycle of conflict and blame. Instead, focus on expressing your own feelings and needs.
“I felt angry when I heard you say that” is far less judgemental than “you make me feel angry”, as it isn’t blaming or shaming the other person, and it isn’t trying to make them responsible for your feelings.
Try this formula:
I feel …………………. when ……………………., so I would like it if/could we try/would you be able to ………………………
I feel frustrated when I don’t think I’m being heard, so perhaps we could speak in turns for 3 minutes each.
I feel angry when you raise your voice, as I want to work towards a calm resolution of this issue. I would like it if you could speak in a quiet voice so that I can really listen to what you are saying.
Speak firmly and clearly and make your request a positive one.
Once you have made a request, your ex then has a choice of response. They may refuse to do what you ask, and you then have a choice as to whether you continue with the conversation.
This sort of communication technique can work wonders when you are accidentally hurting each other, but there are times when it may be better to put a firm boundary in place, such as “When you shout at me I feel angry and I am not willing to be shouted at, so I am leaving now”.
Be aware of your body language
Did you know that only 7% of what we communicate is in the actual words we use? The other 93% is non-verbal - the tone of voice you use (38%) and body language (55%).
Research shows that when the words we use and the non-verbal signals we give don’t match, people believe the non-verbal every time. Ever had someone say “sorry” to you, whilst they roll their eyes and use a sarcastic tone? Me too! They weren’t really sorry at all, were they?
So be aware of your tone and body language.