Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A Parenting Coordinator Can Help You With Your Communications

When high conflict exists between parents, it can really help to have someone monitor your communications with each other. It will save you money and emotional stress if you ask the court to appoint a parenting coordinator (PC) who can provide ongoing feedback to toxic communication patterns.

You can use your PC to monitor your communications by copying the PC on all of your email to each other. If you have chosen a PC who is regularly connected to email, s/he can jump in when s/he sees a negative tone or triggers used. By getting this kind of immediate feedback, you can start to see patterns in your communications that are heightening the conflict between you.

When looking for a PC to help you with your communications, spend some time talking to the person you are considering. You might want to ask the following questions:

• What kind of process the PC uses
• how often s/he checks email
• how s/he responds when toxic communications are spotted

Ultimately, it is up to you to adopt more positive communication patterns, but a PC can give you tools to do that. You might be amazed at the outcome.

Next month: Involving Others in the Conflict

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

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,

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Minimize Conflict During Divorce by Eliminating "Fighting Words" in your Communications

There are words and phrases that are so provocative that they are intended to elicit a sharp response from the target. "Lie", "liar", "selfish", "abusive", "evil", "uncaring" are just a few such words. These "fighting words" are nearly impossible to pass up responding to, even if you have vowed to follow my earlier advice not to respond to confrontational communication from the other person.

If you're using words like this in your communications with your ex or soon-to-be-ex, it's time to stop. Peppering your communication with these kinds of words do not help you make your point, even if you have a valid point to make.

Let's look at an example of communication using these fighting words:

Parent A: Sally is scared to go to your house because you make her go to bed without a nightlight. This is just another example of how abusive you are and how you don't care about your child at all.

Parent B: You are such a liar. Sally loves to come over here, but she's afraid to let you know it. When will you stop trying to turn Sally against me and accept that she loves me? If you weren't so selfish, maybe Sally wouldn't have to lie to you about her time here.

This conversation between Parent A and Parent B will likely go on for some time, getting louder and more hostile. No matter which parent Sally is with at the time of the conversation, she will get an earful, even if the parents think she's asleep or in another room at the time. The conversation will not accomplish anything other than frighten and upset Sally.

When you are tempted to use fighting words, stop to think what the issue really is. In the example above, Parent A is concerned about the lack of a nightlight at the other house. Rather than send the message above, Parent A might have said, "I just wanted to let you know that Sally has gotten used to sleeping with a nightlight on. I'm guessing she'll give it up at some point, but for now, she's really more comfortable with one on at night. Having a nightlight at both houses will probably help make the transition between houses easier for her."

Parent B, on the other hand, is concerned about being accused of being a bad parent and wants to fight off claims of being abusive or selfish. The fact is, that in this example there is really nothing Parent B can say to satisfy Parent A. The best response Parent B could have made to Parent A's angry communication above would have been, "Thank you for your email, I will talk to Sally about the nightlight when she's here next. I will make sure she's comfortable."

By addressing the underlying issue without using provocative language, parents can reduce the conflict between them and focus on positive parenting for their children.

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

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Mum's the Word: Minimize Conflict by Altering Communication Patterns

Separation and divorce are always difficult for children. But when parents remain locked in conflict for years, the continuous anger and insecurity the children experience can be devastating.

Much of the ongoing conflict during and after divorce can be minimized by altering the communication between the parents. For the most part our communication is automatic, patterns repeated over and over. To help break the cycle of conflict, parents need to learn new patterns.

One new pattern of communication is simply to not respond. This can be both the easiest and the hardest new pattern to learn. It's easy because it involves doing nothing. It's hard because it involves doing nothing - when what you really want to do is defend yourself against something the other person has said, reciprocate with an accusation of your own, or prove yourself to the other person.

If the communications between you and the other parent are difficult, limit your communication to email only. If you don't currently have email available, it will definitely be worth your while to set up an account. When you receive angry email messages from the other parent, try a simple response like, "Thank you for the information", or "I got your message, thanks". This kind of simple acknowledgment will eliminate multiple emails asking if you got the first message and asking you to respond. The important thing is to not immediately fire off a lengthy email in return. If there is something in the initial email that really requires a specific response, read the initial email a few times over 24 hours and then respond only as necessary to answer a question or provide requested information.

Toxic communication guaranteed to maintain high conflict between parents takes many forms. Here's just one example:

Parent A: I've asked you hundreds of times to send Sally over with enough clothes for the weekend. This means clothes she can actually go out and play in. She's outgrown the clothes you send for her and the coat you send is so pathetic it wouldn't keep her warm in the summer, let alone in the middle of winter. You should be using the child support I pay you to buy Sally decent clothes. What do you use the child support for anyway? I guess I'm just paying you to go out and have fun with your friends because you're sure not spending the money on Sally. I've had to go out and buy her all new clothes to keep over here since you don't care enough about her to spend any money on her yourself.

Parent B: I can't believe you. As usual, you think only of yourself. Sally has lots of nice clothes here, but I send her over with clothes from the thrift store because you never send them back. Then I have to go out and replace everything again. Sally hates going over to your house because you always criticize her about everything. She's afraid of you and begs me not to make her go with you. If you would care more about her than your precious money, maybe she would want to spend more time with you.

Since we're only concerned here with responding (or not) to angry messages, we're not going to talk about Parent A's initial message. But here's an alternate response from Parent B aimed at reducing conflict: I got your message. Thanks for buying new clothes for Sally to keep at your house. If you will just make sure Sally changes into the clothes she came in before she returns, that will work out great. The trick for Parent B is not to get sucked into the destructive pattern set up by Parent A.

Start practicing now to change old patterns of communication. Eventually these will become your new patterns and will feel automatic and comfortable.

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