The art of difficult conversations in family law

We all love having difficult conversations, don’t we? Er, not. At work, these might include having to reprimand a sensitive employee for poor performance or delivering redundancy news.

Ugly, eh? These situations can fill you with dread and get in the way of your other work. It’s so easy to put off having the conversation, hoping the situation will magically resolve itself. But that usually only makes matters worse. Either way, you end up feeling horrible.

When it comes to family law, that feeling of horror only gets magnified. How do you tell your children you’re separating? Where are they going to live? What’s the best way to break the news of a divorce to family members? And will you sell the house?

Before you wade in

Before you wade in, there are a few things to consider:

1 What do you want to get out of the conversation? Think about your perfect outcome. Aim to use supportive language and guard against being critical or condescending.

2 Don’t get too emotional. Watch out for certain buttons being pushed. We all have a history and we’re all susceptible to triggers. So step back from the conversation and don’t let things get out of hand.

3 Try to have a positive attitude. If you imagine the conversation will be totally awful, that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Try to truly believe that something good will come out of your talk.

4 Try to be aware of how you’ve both contributed to the situation you find yourself in. It’ll be easier to compromise.

Getting the best possible outcome

To get a successful outcome, you’ll need a degree of self-awareness. Stay in control of yourself and your emotions. Control your breathing and stay ‘centred’ (a way of keeping in the present moment).

There are four stages to a good outcome.

Stage 1: Inquiry

Discovery and curiosity will get you everywhere. Aim to soak up as much information as you can. Try to see everything from the other’s point of view. What are their values and goals?

Read between the lines, as well. What is your partner not saying? Watch out for body language. Don’t butt in and don’t take matters personally. Wait patiently for your turn to speak.

Stage 2: Acceptance

Acknowledge what you’ve heard. Try to understand what the other person actually wants. They won’t give an inch until they know that you understand them completely.

Accept everything, even your tendency to get defensive, which can happen if the other person raises their voice.

Acceptance isn’t the same as agreement. You’re just acknowledging what’s important to the other person.

Stage 3: Your turn

When the other person is done, it’s your turn. What did they miss from your perspective? Make your position clear without diminishing theirs. If you have a point to make, try to back it up with real-life examples that provide illustration.

Stage 4: Solving the problem

You’ve both had your say and now it’s time to find a solution. Try brainstorming. Ask the other person what they think might work. If there’s anything in there that appeals to you, grab it and work on it.

If things get heated, go back to stage 1. Ask them again for their opinion. You’ll be on safe ground. Engage purposefully and be prepared to adjust your attitude.

But what if you’re on the other end?

Maybe your lawyer is giving you advice that you don’t like. Or maybe your ex is challenging you. Nobody likes being on the receiving end of a difficult conversation. Here are some tips.

1 Never get defensive

If someone’s being critical of you or challenging your view, you’ll naturally want to defend yourself. But try to resist. Don’t give your ex a licence to be even more self-righteous and hurtful.

Remember: whatever they’re saying is fuelled by emotion, so their statements are distorted. Whatever they think about you is actually irrelevant. Likewise, what your lawyer is telling you is not fuelled by emotion. It’s simply advice designed to achieve the best outcome for you.

2 Disarm them

You can successfully non-plus your ex by refusing to get involved in any kind of spat. You can say things like, ‘You might be right’ or ‘I’ll give that some thought’. They’re looking for a scrap. When they don’t get one, you’ve taken control of the situation.

3 Don’t mirror their bad behaviour

If your two-year-old has a tantrum, the best way of dealing with that isn’t to have one of your own. It’s always best to stay calm and set boundaries. Simply acknowledge that your ex is upset and tell them that this wouldn’t be a good time to have the discussion.

4 Don’t launch a counter-attack

Emotionally charged, in-depth character assassinations simply don’t look good. Stay classy.

5 Stay factual

Respond to any slandering with facts. If you’re concerned about what your ex is saying to other parents, family or friends, ask them to get in touch with you directly.

6 Don’t get emotional

Keep emotions out of the situation. Yes, you’ll get angry and upset in the face of criticism and challenge. But the last thing you need is to appear volatile or a bad parent. It certainly won’t look good in court, either. Control what you can control.

7 Stay detached

Your ex’s barbs will likely have very little to do with reality. If your sense of self-worth depends on their opinions, you’ll live a very unhappy life. Simply try to be the best person you can and let go of others’ opinions.

For an initial FREE consultation on any aspect of family law, call Manders Law on 01245 895 105 or email us here.

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