Communicating is riddled with potholes. This is particularly so for divorced couples whose relationship may be strained with distrust, unresolved resentments, hurt and anger. One of the tasks of mediation is to develop a workable method of communication for parents who will need to be in regular contact, often about sensitive and dynamic issues.
Simplicity and clarity rule. Avoid subtext and innuendos. Say exactly what you mean. Write as though you are posting a sign on the middle school bulletin board (e.g. “Cookie sale Tuesday at noon in the cafeteria.”)
Facts also rule. Stick to them and exchange necessary information. Check your motives. If you discover that your real goal is to criticize, vent, relieve anger, or convince the recipient to change, stop. STOP! This may feel “right,” but it is counter to what you are actually after in this instance. We are working on pain-free communication and problem-solving rather than emotional release. (Note: Emotional relief and acknowledgment is important, but must be dealt with separately. When we try to combine multiple objectives into one action, we often accomplish nothing apart from making a mess.)
I have reviewed email communications between divorcing and divorced couples decorated with tentifiers and softeners, the linguistic equivalents to fabric softeners and pH neutralizers. Example:
“Please don’t be offended – I am not saying you are a bad mom/dad, or that you are mishandling your affairs. I just need to ask…”
All of this extra verbiage – a preemptive effort to protect against anticipated recipient backlash – can turn crafting communications into a dreaded ordeal. Additionally, the efforts may have the opposite result. For the recipient, all of the careful managing may imply that s/he is so injured, defensive and beyond reason that literally nothing can be said without it being interpreted as a personal attack.
The alternative: a more collegial approach, regarding the recipient as a collaborator in common concerns. This implies respect and acknowledgment of the other’s capacity to be both reasonable and valuable. Senders: Using an agreed-to format like the sample memo above can eliminate ineffective over-speaking.
Regardless of whether you are correct or not in your interpretation that there really is an implicit insult (and believe me, I understand that you are not paranoid if it’s true), it is still not useful to employ this perspective. When this interpretation is driving, there is no good destination. Avoid deep analysis of every word and supply a sense (even if it’s through suspended disbelief) that the sender has no hidden agenda or intent to insult. This is not letting anyone off the hook; it’s choosing to be effective.
As mediator, I often encourage clients to copy me on their emails to support their development of transparent and thoughtful communications. Having a professional “witnessing” conversations can help focus purpose and reset tone.
Communication can be dangerous.
Proceed with caution.
Supervision advisable as necessary.
Good luck and Godspeed!
What difficult communications have you faced and how have you managed them? Please share your experiences using the “Leave a Reply” box below. We look forward to hearing from you.