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Planning for Tough Conversations

Your Brain May Make It Hard to Keep Things Civil

When we feel attacked, we go into fight or flight mode. It turns out that the part of the brain that responds to an attack is in a different and incompatible place from the part of the brain that thinks collaboratively. This means that if you feel attacked, your brain quite literally won’t allow you to collaborate. If a conversation goes off the rails, and one of the participants is feeling attacked, both Jen and Kate agree that you need to do something to interrupt the fight or flight instinct to get the topic onto a more productive track.

Be Prepared

A conversation about divorce or anything else that might fundamentally change the family should not be done on the spur of the moment (especially when in a reactive state!). Both Kate and Jennifer recommend preparing for the conversation with a few simple steps:

  1. Identify your goal for the conversation. Is it to communicate, to learn, or to win? (Hint, your conversation probably won’t go well if it's the latter.)
  2. Think through what might be triggering for you or the other person so that you avoid those minefields.
  • Kate pointed out that in mediation, or in front of a judge, two terms are complete non-starters to be avoided at all costs: “My child” and “I will allow.”
  1. Plan for the time and place if you can. Avoid already complicated or stressful situations, like the middle of the holidays.
  2. Consider practicing what you want to say with an ally so that you aren’t speaking and reacting for the first time in the middle of a difficult conversation.
  3. Invite the person to the conversation and give them a chance to prepare for a serious exchange.

Listen and Breathe

It can be hard not to get defensive or anxious during a discussion of an intense topic, but remember that the other person is probably feeling the same way. Instead of responding immediately to what someone has said, consider asking questions like, “Can you say that in other words?” or “This is what I think you said; can you confirm that is what you meant?” And most importantly, ask them more about the reason they have a particular position. You can’t assume that you know the reasons a person is (re)acting the way they are, and the insight of their “why” can help get to a place of mutual understanding. 

Breathing is equally essential. First, when stressed, we tend to hold our breath, which elevates our heart rate and raises our body’s stress level. Breathing can help maintain calm. Second, breathing is an opportunity to step back from the conversation and divert the brain from fight or flight, hopefully returning to the collaborative part of the brain. Finally, pausing the conversation for a few breaths can give the other person a chance to check themselves, and perhaps dial down their intensity.

Don’t Be Afraid to Table the Talk

Both Kate and Jennifer agreed that, if a conversation turns ugly, it’s ok, and even preferable to put it on hold to let everyone cool off. Try using a firm but respectful boundary like, “I can see that this conversation is really important to both of us, and I’d like to continue it without being so heated. When can we talk again?” If that doesn’t work, it’s also ok to walk away.

If you are thinking about having a difficult conversation with your family about a significant change, prepare by getting a better understanding of the legal issues involved. Contact Reese Law to set up a consultation. 

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