… in conflict, we don’t always know how to use them
For over 28 years, I’ve asked conflicted parents the following question:
“On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the worst and 10 being the best, what number would you give to describe the level of your communication?”
The answer most given? A “2”. In fact, in all of those years, I’ve only had a handful of folks give me a “5” or better.
What does this tell us?
That folks in conflict can’t or don’t communicate well…, and the ongoing conflict created by this dynamic negatively affects themselves, each other, and their children. The fact that they answered my questions also is telling. They know that they aren’t communicating.
When asked why they don’t communicate well, several common themes emerge:
“We only talk via text and email.”
“When we try to talk, we fall back into our old conflict patterns.”
“We only talk when we absolutely have to.”
“We rely on our children to send messages back and forth.”
“We talk over each other.”
“We only talk when we are exchanging the children.”
The reported symptoms experienced as a result of these strategies are reactive conversations. And, when parents avoid each other rather than communicate, it also creates heightened conflict, misunderstandings and botched plans, as well as confusion. This leads to a compromised parenting relationship with negative impacts on children, as well as strain on any new relationships.
What is very clear is that these folks have failed to have a good, old-fashioned conversation.
The Merriam-Webster definition of a “conversation” is an:
“oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas.” (emphasis added).
The word in that definition that we must focus on is “exchange”. Folks in conflict do not exchange ideas. Most report that they talk “at” each other or “over” each other. Many report that when the children are underfoot, they are distracted by the tumult of the exchange and don’t really communicate. In any case, no real exchange of information occurs.
As a mediator and conflict coach, I have helped countless conflicted parents learn how to communicate effectively and thereby break the cycle of endless conflict. The good news is that you can immediately change dynamics by using a few time-tested, intuitive strategies:
1. Be Deliberate about When You Communicate
Schedule a regular, weekly time to talk about your children. A deliberate conversation is not a casual talk. It is, in itself, an event that should take place with no distractions. Think of it as a business meeting that you must prepare for. Organize your thoughts, make sure that you have all the necessary information about your kids that you want to discuss (think: report cards, extra-curricular activities, medical records, etc.).
The Strategy: Your conversation should not be occurring when you are transferring the children or as they are underfoot. Ideally, meet in person, but a regularly scheduled phone call will suffice. If you are meeting in person, be sure to confirm the time and location. If you are conversing via telephone, decide which of you will initiate the call to the other.
The Benefit: Both parties will be emotionally prepared for the discussion. As one client said, using this method means she won’t get an unexpected call from her Ex when she’s not emotionally prepared to talk to him.
2. Be Deliberate About What You Are Communicating About
Agree upon the topics to be discussed. When possible, prepare and share an agenda so both of you will be prepared for the conversation. The vast majority of my clients report that their level of communication is better when it involves the children’s issues but falls apart when they delve into interpersonal issues; thus, keep the conversation to issues regarding the children.
The Strategy: Prepare and send each other an agenda for the topics you wish to discuss, along with any necessary documentation well ahead of the scheduled meeting.
The Benefit: Knowing that conversations will be limited to children’s topics will allow you to safely enter each discussion. Also, knowing the topics that must be discussed will allow each of you to organize your thinking and, if necessary, research topics prior to the call.
3. Be Deliberate About Where You Communicate
Sometimes, the actual location of the conversation is important.
The Strategy: Make sure that you are meeting in a place where both parties feel safe and comfortable. It may not be important to you, but you should always ask.
The Benefit: Comfort and safety reduce conflict.
4. Be Deliberate About What You Shouldn’t Talk About
The Strategy: When setting up your structured conversation, agree, in writing, about what you shouldn’t talk about and whether those subjects can be brought up only with the other’s permission.
The Benefit: Neither of you have to be fearful of sensitive or sore topics.
5. Be Deliberate About How You Look and Sound to One Another
My best advice is to imagine that both of you are in a business relationship. Treat each other as you would a superior in your workplace. You would never talk to a superior the way you might emote to a former spouse in conflict and you certainly would not want to take an aggressive or threatening stance.
The Strategy: Be mindful of your tone of voice. A friendly, relaxed tone is more accessible than an angry or tense one. Also, be aware of your body language and facial expressions. Are your facial expressions exhibiting tension or calm? Are you taking an aggressive physical stance or do you appear relaxed and calm?
The Benefit: Being mindful of how you look and sound to one another can help avoid triggers that can destroy a conversation.
6. Be Deliberate About Listening First Before Responding
There is an old adage (perhaps you’ve seen it in the form of a meme on social media) that we must listen to understand rather than listen to respond). Folks in conflict tend to interrupt the speaker and try to talk over him/her or, in some instances, simply walk away without listening (sound familiar?). In either case, these folks are not listening and those desperately trying to be heard feel disrespected. Deliberate or active listening allows each person to say what they need to say and to be completely heard without interruption. Entire thoughts are “exchanged”. The listener has the luxury of sitting back and actually trying to understand what is being said before responding with organized thought.
The Strategy: When I have couples that would rather speak than listen, I pitch one of them a “stress ball”. The rule is that the person holding the ball is the only one that can speak. The person without the ball must simply listen until the ball is passed. This works extremely well because it provides a light structure to how you will exchange your ideas.
Another Strategy: Beat back the urge to interrupt the other person by simply taking a few very deep breaths. Breathe to expand your abdomen, not your chest, and let each breath out slowly. Do this three to five times. You’ll be shocked what deliberate breathing can bring to a fruitful conversation!
The Benefit: We can only gain true understanding by allowing others to express themselves.
7. Confirm What You Have Discussed
We have all had this experience. We had what we thought was a meaningful conversation. You thought it went well but in the final moments, you realized that the other person had a completely different understanding of what was discussed. This often happens because different personalities interpret context, words and intentions differently. This can be frustrating and can be avoided by confirming the outcome of each point that was discussed.
The Strategy: At the end of your conversation, review what was discussed to ensure that both parties have the same understandings.
The Benefit: Both parties will walk away feeling safe and comfortable that they came to mutually acceptable understandings.
8. Be Deliberate About Who Is Responsible For Following Through With Discussed Tasks
It’s easy to “talk the talk” but here’s where you have to “walk the walk”. Each of you must commit to the implementation of your decisions.
The Strategy: Use an online calendar to schedule your respective tasks. Include the dates that tasks are due and who is responsible for each task.
The Benefit: Accountability creates trust. Your follow-through with agreed upon tasks will go a long way towards building a trusting relationship.
9. Stay Focused On The Future, Not The Past
Conflicted conversations usually devolve into what someone did in the past. Focus on what is possible and how to implement that goal. The past cannot be changed, no matter how much we argue about it.
The Strategy: Avoid speaking about the past. Focus on what must be accomplished and how to attain that goal.
The Benefit: Staying forward-focused avoids circular arguments about events that have happened in the past that cannot be changed.
10. Be Proactive In Implementing These Strategies
How you approach these strategies is important. Rather than see them as burdensome, regard them as an opportunity to reduce or eliminate conflict and promote collaboration.
The Strategy: Focus on how these strategies will change your relationships for the better.
The Benefit: Peace, understanding and collaboration. Enough said…
Try these strategies and let me know how they have worked for you. I’d welcome your feedback.