08/03/2011 02:28 pm ET Updated Oct 03, 2011

Mind Your Ps and Qs: The Value of Communicating Politely With Your Ex

The phrase "mind your Ps and Qs" means "Be on your best behavior, mind your manners," a concept that isn't easy to put into practice when dealing with an uncooperative ex. In fact, most people in an acrimonious divorce are bewildered about what the benefit of polite communication might even be. However, if you think about communication as an equation in which partner 1 plus partner 2 equals 3, then it makes sense that if you change your number to something different, you will get a different result.

Using just a few basic techniques will ensure that your communication is clear, effective and polite. And the best part is, you don't even have to feel kindly towards your ex to put this into practice--go ahead and feel your feelings, just communicate differently.

Technique 1: Use "I" statements. An "I" statement is a flexible communication skill that is effective in most communication with your ex and others. It puts your thoughts or feelings on the table and doesn't directly threaten or attack the other person. To fully understand "I" statements, it's helpful first to contrast them with "You" statements.

"You" statements blame the other person for a situation, are accusatory in tone, and trigger defensiveness. "You're never on time;" "If you don't listen to me, I'm taking you back to court;" "Why do you have to be so argumentative?" "You" statements have the other person as their subject and are a form of verbal attack.

In an "I" statement, however, you are the subject of the sentence: "I'm frustrated that it's past the time we agreed upon;" "I feel interrupted and unheard;" "I don't want to argue." "I" statements are non-threatening and inherently respectful. If you keep your tone of voice neutral, it's difficult to argue with them. Most people are unlikely to respond to "I feel frustrated" with "No, you don't", or to "I don't want to argue" with "Yes, you do."

Another reason "I" statements work so well in changing the outcome of a conversation is that they allow you to remain calm. By memorizing the formula ("I feel _____," "I think ______", "I would like _____," "In my opinion ______") much like an actor memorizes lines, you relieve yourself of the pressure to improvise. Even though this new way of speaking may not come naturally at first, with practice it will become part of your speech pattern. Your ex may never communicate in this way, but if at least one person uses this technique in an exchange, explosions are often avoided.

Technique 2: Use a "positive assertion". "I" statements can be made even more effective when you add a positive assertion afterwards. A positive assertion tells the other person what you want to have happen next, or specifically what you want him to do differently. "I'm frustrated that it's past the time we agreed upon." ("I" statement) "Please be on time." (Positive Assertion): "I feel interrupted and unheard." ("I" statement) "Please listen to what I have to say, then I'll be happy to listen to you." (Positive Assertion); "I don't want to argue." ("I" statement) "I'd like to take a break from talking about this until we both cool off." (Positive Assertion)

Technique 3: Watch your body language. When you negotiate with your ex, eye contact and body language are also important to respectful communication. If you avert your eyes, hunch your shoulders, and shuffle your feet when making an "I" statement, you turn power over to your ex. Conversely, if you roll your eyes, turn away, or shake your head you will communicate disrespect and engender a defensive reaction from your ex. It's important to have a confident but not aggressive body posture in order to get your point across.

Technique 4: Do as you say. Finally, be honest and prepared to deliver what you promise. If you know you can't be flexible, don't say that you can.

In today's world of IMs, texts, emails and voicemail, decide in advance which way you want to communicate to your ex. Each method of communication has advantages and disadvantages, so factor them into your Ps, Q, and OMGs.