5 Secrets to Successful Communication when in Conflict
Grained sharp rock pushes into my bottom. A talk with my co-parent just blew up into an ugly mess and I now sit perched on the rocks looking out over angry blue grey seas that mirror the clouds, pregnant with tears. As I sit feeling the jaggedness, the anger and the tears, I see so clearly how communicating with my co-parent can be such a challenge.
So if I have ugly messy conversations with my ex, why am I telling you about communicating with your co-parent or partner? And there it is, secret number one:
It is a work in progress
We are human, and we have pretty deep patterns at play when it comes to talking with our partner or ex-partner. Perfect communication is a myth and there is likely to be lots of communication over the years that goes sour. The reality is that the state of your communication with your child’s other parent is what it is. It is your current starting point and our co-parent has the uncanny talent to push buttons that no one else can. While this sounds like bad news, it can offer a fertile learning ground. If you can learn to communicate with them then you will learn to communicate better with everyone, including your kids.
But then you meet up with them, you feel yourself get triggered, and the volcano of heavy emotions starts to erupt. And this is where secret number 2 comes in.
You can rise out of the stress
It is no secret that a lot of co-parents find talking to their ex stressful, and it is maybe more of a secret that many couples also find communicating hard. It is important to note that at this time your body can have the stress response revving up. This is where your body is gearing up to deal with a shark fin coming towards you. So when the conversation starts and your feeling of being on safe ground starts to vanish, your body chemistry is saying SHARK!! And sharks, we don’t talk to them, we either swim like crazy from them or we fight them. So in this moment our body chemistry is all a bit wonky for having a reasonable conversation.
It is in your power to change this. The counter for the stress response is the relaxation response. You can access it with your breath. If you start breathing like a relaxed person, deep full breaths, your brain thinks, “hey, breath is deep and relaxed, the shark must have gone away. No way would I be that chilled out if there was still a shark about” then it changes your brain chemistry to suit.
Sometimes this is too big an ask. Sometimes the stress response takes complete control of your being. Your brain can’t be persuaded otherwise. So now we are on to secret number 3.
Boundaries are a kindness
There are times when you need to say, “no, I am too stirred up to talk about this right now, can we revisit this in an hour (or tomorrow)”. This is a boundary. A boundary is also saying, “no, I can’t do that”, when you really don’t want to do that.
It is also thinking “hey, I see that they really want to keep talking, and I know that me not being able to do that right now is frustrating for them, and I don’t have to take that on. Their frustration is their own”. Finding new boundaries that honour both of you as people and as parents is a way to sustain your true voice. And for those not used to this, it can feel unkind. I truly believe that setting your boundaries with truth and clarity is a kindness. And this goes both ways. What is theirs is theirs and what is yours is yours. With good boundaries there is no need for you to blame them. You can take responsibility for your own feelings.
5 secrets of communication and as yet we haven’t spoken a word. I better tell you secret number 4.
Communication can build trust and rapport
I am a coach and I also teach coaching skills. Coaching is about have a conversation that brings out the best in someone. I get really excited about the difference that using basic coaching skills can make if used in their day-to-day conversations. These skills are all about building trust and rapport. Imagine if you could have conversations that build trust and rapport with your partner or your ex. The 3 core communication skills for coaches are listening, reflecting and open-ended questions.
Listening is about listening mindfully and trying your best not to take it personally. Put another way. This is where you listen paying full attention to what is being said, not thinking about what you are going to say next. This is also trying to listen without judging them. This is no small feat. Sometimes this can mean listening for what they are really trying to say, not just the blame filled words coming out of their mouth.
Reflecting is kind of odd at first. It is where you reflect back to the person what they just said. In conversations with your co-parent or partner it can be helpful to tell them what you are hearing, to show you understand and acknowledge them, to get clarity, and it is also a really neat way to pause if you are about to react.
“I’m annoyed that you are late!” they say
“Oh, you are annoyed that I am late. I see that,” you say.
Open-ended questions are also really useful. Closed questions are often making an assumption whereas open-ended questions promote openness. See how different these two questions can feel “do you like being late?” Or “what happened to make you late?” One kind of question takes you to a dead end, the other to a door.
These are helpful skills for hearing them, building a communication relationship where they can feel safe. And what about communicating what you want and understanding what they want? This is secret number five.
You both have needs and you can work towards having BOTH your needs met
I don’t know if I missed a parent memo somewhere but I have never seen written anywhere that parents can’t have what they need, single or coupled. But there is also something about the grief, the guilt and that trapped feeling of parenting that can have us persuading ourselves of that. I see 3 big things getting in the way of having your needs met:
• Not feeling like you are worthy
• Not knowing what they are
• Not knowing how to ask for them
Please believe that you are worthy. I truly think that you are.
Start to get clear on what you need, until you are clear, you can’t ask for it.
Ask, and if you can, try not to demand it.
So I stood up from that rocky seascape, walked back over the rocky outcrop. I went and saw my co-parent. Through sitting on my own, staring out at the choppy ocean, processing what had happened I had found my center. I had seen what my truth was, let go of the anger and blame. I went and said to him “I feel really yuk about how that last conversation went, would you be up for talking more?”
After a nod from his head I asked, “How are you feeling about it?” as I settled into a nice comfy chair. The clouds above parted, revealing sun stroked blue. And the work in progress continues.
Image by Karsten Bitter under a creative commons license