How To Communicate With A High-Conflict Person (Without Losing Your Mind)

If you’re stuck having to communicate with someone you can’t stand – a high-conflict co-parent —a crazy-making relative, a quixotic landlord, or anyone who has attached themselves to your life like a toxic barnacle — there’s hope!

You can learn to communicate with someone with whom it feels impossible to communicate, but you need a strategy. And you need to adhere to this strategy, even when you feel emotional. Especially when you feel emotional.

So how do you do that, exactly?

Act Like A Reporter

When you are emailing, texting, or speaking with your high-conflict person, you want to pretend you’re a news reporter. That means you are interested only in facts. You are not writing to dispense opinions, share feelings, or engage in debate.

It doesn’t matter what crazy hash your ex, or other difficult person, is slinging at you. There is no perfect arrangement of words that will make him or her shut up or achieve a personality overhaul. So let go of your doomed desire to set your nemesis straight and stick to the following:

Communication Protocol*

1. Be concise.

 A 500-word single-spaced email will annoy your ex. Doesn’t opening a long-winded missive from him (or her) spike your blood pressure? Don’t piss off Mr. or Ms. Nasty by making him read more than is necessary. Your emails and texts should be as brief as possible. When you’re finished, don’t hit “send.” Review what you’ve written later and delete everything that isn’t about facts. When your correspondence reads like a news report, it’s time to deliver your message.

2. Be informative.

When you are writing or editing your correspondence, remember to stick to facts and logistics. Omit anything that smacks of opinion, feelings, lectures, or parenting advice. For example, “that was incredibly insensitive of you to introduce the kids to your new girlfriend without telling me first” does NOT constitute information! However, “The dentist says Sally has a cavity, and I made an appointment to have it filled” does. Sticking to the facts gives your ex less opportunity to spew venom your way.

3. Keep a neutral tone.

Steer clear of sarcasm, threats, hyperbole, emotional outbursts, or the “I statements” you learned in couples counseling. Avoid all-caps and exclamation marks, which infer anger and emotion. Ideally, you should eliminate all the personality from your correspondence. Your ex doesn’t care about how you feel, other than to gather more information about how to punish you. You don’t need to be friendly, but do strive for neutral.

4. Minimize engagement.

High-conflict personalities love debate and “negotiation” because they can stay psychologically engaged with you this way. Don’t give them that satisfaction! Resist the urge to fire back a hostile reply, or get sucked into a vortex of futile negotiations.

State your position clearly: “I understand that you would like to swap weekends but I’m unable to do that, so we need to stick to the court order.” Once you state your position, stick to it! Don’t apologize or defend yourself. If your ex fires off a round of threats and insults, let him or her shout into the wind.

The goal is to address only what needs to be addressed; your ex’s tantrums are not your concern.

Progress, Not Perfection

Implementing this communication strategy may feel awkward, and — if you frequently succumb to knee-jerk responses — unsatisfying. Save your real feelings for your journal and your therapist so you can follow your news reporter protocol. There is simply no point in trying to talk sense into a crazy person. You’ll just give yourself an ulcer, inflame conflict, and feel more attached to the person you loathe.

Don’t beat yourself up if you have a hard time adhering to the protocol. Aim for progress, not perfection. The more you practice this communication strategy, the easier it will become to regulate your own emotions when you do have to correspond with the high-conflict person in your life.

*Communication protocol inspired by the work of Bill Eddy of The High-Conflict Institute.

Photo by Mimi Thian via Unsplash
Virginia Gilbert

Virginia Gilbert

I live in Los Angeles, where I specialize in helping people going through high-conflict divorce. On this blog, you'll find insights to help people who are considering divorce, are going through divorce, or have a high-conflict divorce that never seems to get any better.

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