3.7 Communicating in Conflict

The 4 Musts for Communications in Conflict

When people are in conflict, communicating can become more difficult - especially if it is emotional for one or both people. When there’s conflict, people are often quicker to anger, unfocused, and less willing to listen. Separating couples are usually faced with conflict over how to go about separating and making decisions about their key issues. You need to take special care when you’re communicating with your former spouse. These 4 strategies for conflict communications can help. 


1) Neutralizing Issues

It is important to start on the right foot. If you go in using charged language you’re already setting yourself up for a fight. The way you frame the issues should be in neutral language. Stay away from blaming the other person. A good trick is to frame the issue without using the word “you”.

Don’t say: I want to talk about how you’re always late for pickups.

Instead: I want to talk about pickup times.

Don’t say: Let’s talk about how you want more money.

Instead: Let’s talk about our financial needs and abilities.

Now you try neutralizing these issues:

  1. We need to talk about how you haven’t paid child support this month.
  2. I have an issue with you being a jerk and ignoring my phone calls.


  1. I’d like to talk about the timing and method of child support payments?
  2.  I’d like to talk about our communication. Set out some ground rules about how and when we communicate with each other.


2) Rephrasing Language

Sometimes communication breaks down because the way you express your thoughts and feelings causes the listener to react emotionally. The way we naturally react to emotional conversations might not be the best for agreement building with a former spouse. By learning to rephrase your language you can avoid communication pitfalls and develop a healthier more productive way of communicating.

Common rephrasing opportunities:

  • Make requests. Instead of making statements, which can be misinterpreted as demands, try framing as much as you can as requests.

Don’t Say: “You should pick the kids up at school and drive them to piano lessons.“

Instead: "Would you be willing to pick the kids up..?" or

    “Can we try having you pick them up..?”

  • Keep conversations issue-focused. You can control the content of your communication. Never let a discussion with your ex-partner become a conversation about past irrelevant events.

Don’t Say: “You didn’t even want to buy the car. You never used it, I should get to keep it.

Instead: We need to figure out a way to deal with the car. I would like to keep it because I need to drive the kids to school. What do you think we should do with the car?”

  • Use “I” Statements. This is a powerful technique that lets you express your emotions and connect them with the actions of the other person. An “I” statement says how you feel and describes the condition that makes you feel that way and why it causes emotion. It starts with an “I”, includes a feeling and provides details of why you feel that way.

Don’t Say: “You never listen to me.

Instead: “I feel isolated when you don’t acknowledge what I’m saying.”


3) Business-like

Many people find that thinking of their co-parenting relationship as a business relationship helps to keep communication positive. You are both working together as partners in the “business” of raising the children. Many parents find that they have a common goal of raising their children to be happy, healthy, and functional adults.  Focusing on this goal helps keep communications business-like.

If children are not involved, or if there are continuing issues in addition to your children, try to agree on mutual goals to ensure that you will have a focal point for your communications. Many people fail at communicating because they fail to change from an intimate partner relationship to a business-like relationship.

How to keep it business-like:

  1. Clear expectations. In a business relationship your expectations of the other person are limited to the terms that are clearly written in an agreement. Similarly, you should not have any expectations of your former spouse outside of what you’ve agreed to. Also, in business, both parties focus on the terms of this agreement, not the last one. Don’t bring the negativity of your past relationship into the new business-like relationship.
  2. Professionalism. Business people greet each other when they see each other. They interact in structured situations such as meetings. They exchange ideas through open dialogue. They have agendas to guide the conversation. When business associates don’t necessarily like each other, they still maintain a polite professionalism. Always be polite during communications. Be professional. Arrange meetings, have an agenda and be punctual.
  3. Little personal involvement. Business people are generally not involved in the personal lives of their colleagues. They leave their home issues at home. Even if they are friends outside of work, at work they focus on work. As you create a new business-like relationship, keep a boundary between this relationship and your personal life. You both need to move on and live your lives separately.
  4. Problem solving. When business people are met with a challenge, they work together to solve the problem. They get creative, they brainstorm. They work hard to find a solution. They do not play the blame game or criticize the actions of others. Instead, they apply their energies to create a positive outcome. Whatever conflict you face in the separation, if you both bring a can-do attitude that is focused on a positive outcome, you can find a solution.


4) Be Prepared

If you were going to make a business presentation or meet with a challenging client, you would prepare for the session. Take this same approach when it comes to negotiating a settlement agreement with your former spouse. Be prepared.

Before you have a difficult conversation, think about what you want to say, and how you’re going to say it. Make an outline of the key points and provide an explanation about why each one is important. Have an agenda. Think about how you can stay focused on moving towards positive outcomes. How you will manage your emotions and communicate constructively?

It’s a good idea to consider your listener and how they might react. Think about the key conflicts points carefully and be ready with strong reasons that explain your position. When an objection comes up, have an answer ready.

Everyone has emotional triggers, think about yours. Review the My Triggers Worksheet that you completed earlier. Also, consider your listener’s triggers and avoid hostility. This will help you feel less nervous and make for a more effective conversation.

Here are some approaches that others have used when meeting with their former spouse to work through separation issues:

  • “I wore my business clothes and sat on the other side of the table. In the middle, I put pictures of our kids.”
  • “We took a 5 minute break every 30 minutes. It helped us keep our cool and get through it.”
  • “Before we met, I sent him an agenda of the things we needed to cover. This really helped to keep both of us on track”.
  • “Before the meeting, I did some power poses: arms in the air, hands on my hips, etc. It felt silly but it relaxed me and made me stand up taller and come off more confident.”
  • “I was worried I’d forget something important, so I wrote down my key points and brought my notes to the meeting.”
  • “I practiced in front of a mirror before actually speaking with my Ex. I was able to build confidence and got my facial expressions to be more neutral.”

Mediator’s Tip:

Practice having a conversation about your key issues with someone you trust by having them role playing a conversation you might have with your former spouse.