This article (the second of a two-part article) was written by Dr. Honey Sheff, a Dallas-based mental health professional and a board member of the Collaborative Law Institute of Texas. If you missed Part One, you can find it here.
In my previous article, I took a look at the importance of good communication for divorcing and divorced parents – starting with the basic idea that parents should communicate with each other, not using their children as go-betweens, and that parents should be respectful in their interactions with one another.
In addition to phone calls and face-to-face communications, there are several forms of digital communication that have become increasingly important for busy parents – but are also increasingly maligned and misused, and sometimes do more harm than good. Texting and email are far more anonymous and by lacking the emotion of in person interaction, can lead to far more misunderstanding than understanding. However, they can also be useful tools to avoid a dreaded interaction or potential conflict if used effectively. Most importantly, they can be effective mechanisms to simply share information. Here are some tips to help with each medium of communications:
Parents today know that children and adolescents do not “talk” to each other anymore, and that the majority of their interaction, if not in person, is by text. Consequently, many of us have been co-opted by our children into communicating the same way. This can spell disaster for divorced parents, since texting is really NOT designed for conversing, debating, arguing or reaching decisions, and yet it often deteriorates into exactly that.
Texts should be short, sound bytes of information: “running late”, “will be there in 5”, “forgot the backpack, coming back”, “please call me,” “missing the meds”, “where’s the homework?” The received text should be acknowledged with a simple “k” or “Okay” or a very brief answer to the question, and only the question, so that the sender knows it was received and/or gets the needed information. THAT IS IT for texting: No lengthy attacks, arguments, digital monologues, criticisms, back and forth debates, or kitchen-sinking. I recognize that messages and hidden agendas can be read into even these short communiqués, but the damage is far less than what can be read into long, rambling, and angry text messages spanning several screens.
Email has tremendous value for efficiently and effectively facilitating communication and decision making between parents if used in the manner in which it is intended: The factual exchange of information. Bill Eddy, the internationally recognized expert on high-conflict couples, recommends that emails follow the BIFF formula: Brief, Informative, Firm, Friendly. I would add one more “f” and suggest that it be factual.
If texts can be misread, misinterpreted and misunderstood, email is the granddaddy of potential miscommunication, especially between divorced parents, if not used as suggested.
All emails should be acknowledged; even a simple “received, need to think about it”, “confirm receipt, will get back to you” or if the request is agreeable, then “okay—sounds good to me, I agree”. If there are questions, ask them using the BIFF(F) formula. “When is the camp? Has Johnny said he wants to go?” “Can you give me more information about the logistics of the concert Susie wants to attend on my weekend?” IF a question is asked, or agreement solicited, following the BIFF(F) formula: “Susie is attending with 2 friends and Mrs. Smith. She will pick Susie up at your house and drop her back off at 11:00 p.m. Is this agreeable?” If there is disagreement, email communication should cease immediately with something along the lines of, “Since I don’t agree, let’s talk tonight at 7:00 or let’s meet on Friday to discuss further.” Discussion and debate should not be by email. Arguing should not be by email. You should only have a handful of exchanges on any one thread. If your interaction begins to unravel or you begin to disagree, then that’s the time to pick up the phone or meet and have a real conversation. Email serves a much-needed purpose in allowing couples to communicate effectively, as long as it is done constructively and sticks to the rules.
This is the easiest of all: DO NOT USE social media channels to communicate with your former partner. There is nothing that you can say on Twitter or Facebook that can be of sufficient value to use such public mediums to interact with each other about your children, especially when there are so many other options for “talking.”
Under the best of circumstances, communication between partners can be difficult; for former partners, it is at times near impossible. You may find that certain mediums of communication work better than others for your situation, but no matter what you’re most comfortable with, make sure that whatever you choose will lead you to constructive communication and peaceful resolution.