Tips for Having Tough Conversations
By: Cristin M. Lowe
It can be extremely frustrating when your attorney suggests for you to speak to your soon-to-be-ex regarding settling your divorce case. After all, isn’t that what you’re paying him or her for? The truth is that when we ask this of our clients, it’s for their benefit, not because we’re lazy. Not only is it cheaper, but there is a smaller margin for miscommunication (think of the old game of telephone, where passing messages back and forth always results in some breakdown of the original message) and parties can talk about things in a “non-legal” capacity. That being said, we’re fully aware of the difficult task we’ve given you.
We all feel frustrated and far less than brilliant when we don’t know how to handle difficult conversations with grace, confidence and ease. Whether you’re working with a difficult person, talking to your hormonally-charged teenager about missing curfew or being afraid to ask for what you need in your romantic relationship, we could all use help being able to speak our truth, even when it might not be easy for someone else to hear. We all avoid tough conversations at times. Whether it’s because we hate conflict, are afraid of losing, or just don’t want to speak to the other person period, it’s a drain of energy and time allowing that conversation to fester.
Our communication gets fuzzy and sugarcoated when we’re afraid to speak our minds. We get uncomfortable when faced with strong and opposing opinions. The “inner pushover” shows up and our conviction wavers. When putting off a tough conversation is zapping your energy and focus from what really matters, here are some tips to help you take the bull by the horns and have that talk.
1. See the Forest from the Trees.
Divorce is never a sprint—it’s a long, exhausting, and stressful marathon. It is so easy to get wrapped up in the “now” and forget about the ultimate destination. I once had a client who was able to work out an agreement with his ex-wife apart from the attorneys. It wasn’t a full agreement by any means, but it was certainly an extremely advantageous agreement for him. Certainly it was more than he would have been entitled to under the law. He then decided to back out of their agreement unless she conceded another issue. That “extra” issue was a hotly contested issue at that point in time, but it was not a big issue in the overall grand scheme of their divorce. He ended up losing the deal and spent thousands more in attorney fees litigating the previous deal. Take a moment to connect to the big picture where the situation is resolved and your energy not being drained. Let the clarity of seeing your end point in mind help motivate and inspire you to know when to stop. The cliché of quitting while you’re ahead comes to mind.
2. Stay Grounded.
We all want to keep our cards close to our vest while expecting the other side to be fully open and honest. Tough conversations get even tougher when you shield yourself with your intellect and don’t share how you are truly feeling about the situation. At the same time, it’s usually extremely difficult (if not impossible) to make any sort of headway in resolving an issue without some sort of forthrightness. It’s a very difficult balance between remembering that the two of you are opponents in a case, yet at the same time, working together to reach a successful outcome to your divorce. Remember to only be as open as necessary to make progress in your case—you don’t need to share what you and your attorney discuss.
3. Keep your Motives Pure.
The key is that you truly are trying to settle your divorce case. Using the time to exchange barbs or blame the other for the situation, remember to focus on the reason why you want to have the conversation. If you are trying to discuss the case with your ex for a reason other than trying to resolve matters, you shouldn’t be having the conversation. Trying to resolve an issue amicably without attorneys is always a positive step, and it will be a welcome one regardless of the outcome so long as your intent is truly pure.
4. Manage Your Expectations.
Your agenda is to create clarity and hopefully move towards resolving some of your divorce issues. Beware of having a conversation with an agenda of having your ex see things exactly the way you do, or agreeing with you. It may sound a bit tongue in cheek to say so, but the reality is that you likely would not be in the middle of a divorce if you were able to have your spouse see things your way during the marriage. While you might get some level of compliance with what you want in the short term, in the long-run there will undoubtedly be friction, unfulfilled expectations and resentment. Give up an unrealistic expectation of having your ex agree with you, and instead focus on bridging the gap between your respective positions. Remember that the “why” is not as important as the “what” when it comes to agreements within the context of your divorce.
5. Make Sure the Timing is Right.
Before you even get started in the conversation, check in to see if the timing is right. Having a discussion at the wrong time will only lead to increased friction and a decreased likelihood of success. If your ex has another commitment or can’t give the conversation their full attention, find a time that works for you both. Remember that divorce is an extremely emotional time for both parties and that your spouse may not yet be in the same state of mind as you. It’s simply not worth trying to have a difficult conversation with your ex if it won’t be welcomed or well-received. Be patient and intelligent about the timing of this important conversation.