Want to stay present and composed during difficult conversations with your ex?
Want your relationship with your ex to be amicable?
This article compliments the Beanstalk article ‘How to communicate with an ex you can’t stand’, which provides excellent, practical tips on handling a difficult relationship.
Here we are going to look at the structure of a difficult conversation. This is important because all difficult conversations have a common structure and understanding that can transform the way you show up to and handle them.
The Structure of a Difficult Conversation
Underneath every difficult conversation, there are three underlying conversations happening:
- The ‘What happened’ conversation
- The ‘feelings’ conversation
- The ‘identity’ conversation
These three underlying conversations are explained in detail in the book: Difficult Conversations. Over the last decade as a coach, helping women live with confidence, I’ve trained extensively and read countess books on how to be an effective communicator. Difficult Conversations is still one of the best books I’ve ever read on the topic. It taught me the underlying structure of difficult conversation and instantly improved my ability to handle them.
To help explain each of the conversations underlying every difficult conversation, let’s imagine this scenario:
You’re at your parents’ home on the evening of your daughter’s birthday. Your husband has just pulled up in the driveway forty-five minutes late. Your frustration triples when you see your daughter holding a toy; the same toy that you have wrapped and waiting for her inside. Your daughter runs to her grandparents who are waiting by the front door and you are left to exchange words with your ex.
The ‘What happened?’ Conversation
The ‘what happened’ conversation tends to be a one-sided view of the facts, where blame lies and what should have happened. This doesn’t work because difficult conversations are almost never about facts. They are about conflicting perceptions, interpretations and values. They are not about what a contract states, they are about what a contract means. They are not about which child-reading book is most popular, they are about which child-rearing book we should follow.
Difficult conversations are not about what is true, they are about what’s important, and ‘important’ is usually a matter of opinion.
The other problem in the ‘what happened’ conversation is we tend to decide what the other person’s intentions are, treat that assumption as fact, then attempt to attribute blame. This all puts the other person on the defensive.
The ‘Feelings’ conversation
Expressed feelings can make us feel vulnerable, especially around people we’ve experienced a lot of hurt with in the past. We think we need to be emotionless around those people, so we don’t appear weak, vulnerable or unstable.
So we attempt to keep feelings out of the conversation. But in difficult conversations, ‘feelings’ are the core of the issue. It’s how we feel (hurt, afraid, scared, cautious, stressed) that makes a conversation difficult. Yet we fall under the illusion that if we are not talking about feelings then they are not there and are not controlling you. They are there and they are dictating your experience of reality and driving the conversation with your ex.
The ‘Identity’ conversation
Some conversations are difficult because they make us think about our own sense of capability and worth. Your divorce means your daughter is travelling between two different homes on her birthday instead of experiencing the kind of birthdays you envisioned for her when you were pregnant. This might make both you and your ex feel a sense of failure around parenting and the identity attribution might sound something like ‘I’m a bad parent.’
Additionally, human beings have a tendency to think in terms of all or nothing, which is why you or your ex might hear yourselves think ‘I’m a bad parent’ rather than ‘I’m a good parent who made a mistake.’
What to do:
- Consider whether you really need to have the conversation? While it’s not effective to be a habitual avoider of difficult conversations, it is smart to consider: Is this conversation really necessary, or should I just surrender and let it go?
- Stay with facts. Avoid assumptions, labels or turning your feelings into facts.
- Express your feelings. If you and your ex can express feelings to each other, it can help to get to the core of the issue rather than getting caught up in each person’s interpretation of what happened. At a minimum, explore, name and express your feelings with someone you trust.
- Work on your self-worth. You’re a good parent, even if you make mistakes sometimes. Don’t allow a mistake mean you’re ‘bad’ because that will likely cause you to become defensive.