photograph courtesy of Columbia Motion Pictures

photograph courtesy of Columbia Motion Pictures

Dear Michael:

I write to you because you are becoming the “Dear Abby” of San Diego!  

I am having a problem with my ex-husband.  When I left him for another man, he was really angry about it.  Now, nine years’ later, he still is furious with me.  

We have a daughter – Amy – and he makes my life miserable every time I have to talk with him about her.  I can’t avoid him because of Amy.  

I have to call him and discuss Amy’s desire to go to a private school, and ask him to pay for half of it.  I dread this.  Any advice?

Full of Dread in La Mesa


Dear Full:

First of all, thanks for the compliment!  I should be so lucky to give advice as good as Abby’s.  Now, to your problem.  Everyone has to face difficult conversations with people they find hostile, ignorant or just plain mean.  Here are some suggestions on how to make any conversation with difficult people go as smoothly as possible:

Before the conversation, make notes for yourself:  Many of us just expect to call up a difficult person and “wing it”.  Unless you are a brilliant orator and supremely self-confident, this isn’t a great strategy.  Most of us need help getting through tough talks like yours; making notes for yourself to use during the conversation creates a framework that you can use to remind yourself of how you want your conversation to go.

Set your intention:  What do you want from the conversation?  Write this down.  If your ex starts to distract you from your purpose (i.e., your daughter going to private school), you can refer back to your notes and refocus.  In addition, I recommend establishing intentions to be kind, honest and present in speaking with your ex.  That way, if he tries to drag you down into the mud – “You’ve never been a good mother” – you’ll have your intentions to help you hold onto your integrity.

Pay attention to your breathing:  Most of us don’t even notice that we stop breathing or breathe very shallowly during difficult conversations.  This limits the oxygen available to our brain and we think less clearly.  Notice your breathing.  I suggest you write down: “Remember to breathe” on your notes.

Listen from your heart:  It’s tough not to rehearse your response when someone else is talking, but it’s a valuable skill to learn.  If you want to be HEARD by your ex, you need to LISTEN to him.  What you put out, comes back to you.  Listening from your heart often leads to surprising conversations:  your ex may actually have something helpful to say – a great private school you may not know about – IF he feels safe enough to say it.  The bottom line is that someone has to set the tone of safety and mutual respect; it will probably have to be you.   Give him a chance to follow your lead.

Speak from your heart:  This is the yang (actively speaking) to the yin (being receptive) of listening.  Can you speak from your heart about what really matters?  Can you stay in the present and not drag in old junk from the past?  Can you do it even when your heart is pounding and your palms are sweating?  If you feel panic when it’s your turn to speak, pause, take a deep breath and refer to your notes.  Remember your intentions.  If you find yourself wanting to say something really mean and hurtful, remember your intention to be kind and honest.

Confident people tell the truth:  Don’t take the bait if your ex tries to trick you into repeating old (unhappy) patterns of communication.  Break the pattern; respond differently.  For example, instead of saying, “You can’t hurt me anymore, so don’t even try”, you could say, “What you just said really hurts.”  Confident and secure people can tell the truth about difficult emotions; it’s the cowards who pretend to be strong and unaffected by hurtful words from others.  Embrace the paradox; respectfully tell the truth and see what happens.

Slow down:  Have you ever said things you regretted?  Have cruel words ever tumbled from your lips, as if someone else had control of your mouth?  Join the club!  To prevent this, SLOW DOWN and BE AWARE of what you are saying, thinking and feeling.  During your conversation, pause repeatedly.  Put this in your notes to remind yourself.  You might even have a glass of water next to you and force yourself to take a sip when you are likely to say something you’d later regret.  The sip of water buys you a few seconds to chill out before you say anything (this works in difficult face-to-face conversations too).

After it’s over:  Be kind and full of praise to yourself.  Resist the temptation to overanalyze and be self-critical.  Instead, focus on what went RIGHT and reward yourself: you did it!  You made it through and it’s over.  Regardless of what your ex says, whether he agrees with you or not, you demonstrated strength, awareness and maturity to both him and yourself.  Bask in your accomplishment and take yourself – or your partner and Amy – out to lunch!