High Conflict Co-Parenting: Do Words Matter?

When someone asks me to have a discussion, I almost immediately get defensive.

Having a discussion feels like something serious and heavy needs to talked about.

Discussion = condescending, controlling, negative, dark.

I hate the word – nothing positive comes out of a discussion. It implies that one person is going to tell the other person why they should side with them.

“Let’s discuss.” means “Let me tell you why I’m right.”

At least that’s my perception of the word discuss.

I want to have conversations.

Conversations allow each person to talk and explore why they think/feel the way they do and that they are open to what the person they are conversing with thinks/feels too.

Conversations are collaborative, interactive, engaging.

Conversations allow people to talk and listen.

Conversations can resolve perceived conflict.

Conversations can allow people to find common ground.

Conversations encourage possibility – even if the topic is a serious or complicated one.

Why am I telling you this?

  1. Have you ever – in your whole life – thought about the difference between discussion and conversation? Likely not.
  2. If you and I just met and you wanted to chat with me; it’s possible you’d use the word discussion in a non-negative context because the word doesn’t have negative connotations for you.
  3. And if you and I just met and you used the word discussion with me, I’d ever so slightly disengage from our chat and move on to talk with someone else. You’d be left thinking I’m odd, strange, cold, aloof and disinterested in chatting with you. (Ok not anymore, now that I’m older and more mature I’d ask you about your thoughts on the differences between discussion and conversation.)
  4. You and I would have just met so you wouldn’t have known the word discussion was a trigger word for me.
    But you haven’t just met your Ex.
  5. You and your Ex have a history.
  6. You may not have reflected on which words trigger fights with your Ex, but it’s time to start.

High conflict personalities are extra sensitive to language. Their spidey senses and perceptions of what words mean TO THEM magnify their responses to any given topic.

I always encourage parents to communicate with their high conflict Ex through email; using 4 sentences or less; using no emotional words, providing no insight and refraining from giving an opinion.


Because the fewer words you use, the less likely your Ex is going to negatively attach him/herself to a word you’ve used and spiral into an epic tantrum.

Unless, of course, you want to trigger an epic tantrum. Because let’s face it, sometimes we just need the emotional release of a tantrum. I’m not going to fault you for that, I’ve been known to poke the bear a few times myself. But I have always regretted it once I’ve done it.

Because their epic tantrum will ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS make your life harder while you attempt to manage them during their tantrum.

On a day-to-day basis, your goal is not to trigger epic tantrums.

It’s to communicate effectively with your child’s other parent.

And how do you communicate more effectively with someone who is sensitive to language?

Start being aware of when your co-parent is triggered into a tantrum – what words did you use?

It doesn’t matter what meaning you attach to a word, what matters is what meaning your Ex attaches to a word.

Discussion is my trigger word, but most people think I’m nuts to attach a negative connotation to a benign word like discussion.


  1. Pay attention to your Ex’s tantrums, could the language you’re using be contributing to the tantrum?
  2. What language does your Ex us when communicating with you? What words does he/she use that trigger you
  3. Understanding your trigger words will help you manage yourself when triggered. Make a list of your trigger words.
  4. Words are just words. Yes. But people attach feelings to certain words – good, bad and ugly feelings. And if your Ex struggles to manage his/her emotions, certain words will trigger a tantrum.
  5. Make a list of words that appear to trigger your Ex and then avoid using them in your communications.
  6. What feelings have you attached to your trigger words?

Communication with your Ex is never going to easy, nor is it going to be linear. As soon as you think you are able to predict their reaction, the reaction will change.

Awareness to the words you use will help reduce your Ex’s tantrums, and awareness or own trigger words will help you react less intensely when they use your trigger words.

Words are just words.

Want to learn more about how to communicate effectively with your Ex?

My online course, When Parents Can’t Be Friends, will give you the tools and strategies you need to disengage from your trigger words and more effectively manage your communications with your co-parent.