Thursday, January 22, 2009

Stop the Conflict: Three Communication Mistakes That Can Be Fixed

I'm off my schedule by a day and I apologize. This month's theme is communication, especially between divorced or separated parents. I've talked about how, sometimes, your best communication option during and after divorce is to say nothing, and about eliminating "fighting words" from your communications. Continuing with the communication theme, here are some fixes for email communication mistakes that can help reduce conflict with the other parent:

Caps - Use them seldom or not at all

Before email became so prevalent , I read comments from people writing about email etiquette that you shouldn't write your emails in capital letters because it is akin to shouting. I didn't really believe that until email became part of my all-day, every-day life.

I began to understand how offensive the liberal use of caps in email is when I received my first email that was mostly written in caps. It just set me on edge, like fingernails on a blackboard (do people even remember that sound anymore?). So I started really paying attention to emails, not just to me, but between my clients. What I found surprised me.

I found that the use of caps often seems to be a substitute for saying something meaningful. Because of this, I tend to gloss over and pay less attention to emails I receive that are written with lots of caps. Rather than getting or keeping my attention by the use of caps, the writer has lost me.

I found that the use of caps in emails between high-conflict parents triggers anger reactions. The caps don't add anything of substance to the communication and cause the communications to quickly deteriorate. Once the anger kicks in, effective communication really becomes impossible.

If you find yourself moved to use caps in your email, ask yourself what you are trying to achieve. Then, find some other way to communicate.

Sarcasm and humor

When we talk to someone, our words are only a part of the communication. We use hand gestures; raise an eyebrow; make our voice higher or lower, louder or softer; laugh; smile; or frown. All of these things convey our true meaning to the person we're talking to. Because written communication is devoid of everything but the raw words, our intentions are largely lost in email.

When you write an email, you are often adding all of those hand gestures, facial expressions and intonations in your mind. The problem is, that the person reading your email can't see into your mind. Sarcasm and humor are both highly dependent on extraneous visual and auditory cues. Since these aren't available in writing, your attempts at sarcasm and humor in email will likely fail or be misconstrued.

Those cute little emoticons (the smiling, laughing, winking, or sad faces) people add to their email weren't just created by people with way too much time on their hands. They fill people's need to try to show the spirit of their words in their emails so the receiver can better understand what's being said. Without something like that, the receiver has no way of knowing your intentions.

If your relationship with the other parent is stressed and full of conflict, your best practice is to leave attempts at sarcasm and humor out of your email.

Last word

You probably all have someone in your family who has to have the last word in any discussion or argument. Maybe your whole family is like this, making family get-togethers challenging at best. If you are someone who needs to have the last word, you must know that your need is adding to the conflict with the other parent.

If this is you, it will take great restraint on your part to break the pattern. It took a long time to cultivate the need to have the last word and it will take a long time to feel comfortable not having the last word. The only way to break the cycle is to just resist the urge to say one more thing. Start with a subject that isn't really important to you and just end without responding to the last thing the other person said. As you become more comfortable with this in relatively unimportant conversations, then you can move on to practicing in areas that are more important. Work slowly, but work at it constantly. It will be hard work, but the rewards will be great.

If it is the other parent who needs the last word, know that it is not a sign of weakness on your part to let him or her have it. Know that this communication pattern in the other person started way before you ever came into the picture and includes more than communications just with you. But, it is important for you to take responsibility for your part in these never-ending discussions. Even if the other person hasn't yet done the work necessary to end this communication merry-go-round, you can. If you follow the steps above, the cycle will stop. Start with a subject that is not highly charged, and just let the conversation go when you have said what you have to say. If you make this decision to break this communication cycle, you will feel more powerful in the relationship, not less powerful.

I can't stress enough the powerful role communication has in creating on-going conflict in your relationship with the other parent. Likewise, creating new patterns of communication can break the destructive cycle of conflict and allow both parents to focus on building good relationships with their children.

© 2009, Mary Wollard, J.D., Family Solutions Center,

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