Good communication is important in all relationships. Children benefit from a respectful and cooperative relationship between all parties involved in their upbringing, including their parents, grandparents, and other extended family members. It is important to have effective communication skills when dealing with the parties involved in the raising of a child.
Rethinking Your Communication Style
A first step may be re-thinking your role. It may be helpful to think about moving from an intimate communication style to a business-like communication style.
An intimate relationship includes:
- many unwritten and unspoken expectations
- informal meetings
- a lot of emotional and personal investment
- open discussion and sharing of information
A business-like relationship includes:
- no expectations unless agreed upon or written down
- formal courtesies, structured interactions and meetings with specific agendas
- little personal involvement
limited disclosure of information unless relevant
Children Are Not Messengers
It can be hard to communicate with the other person because of emotions such as pain, anger, fear and resentment. Some people try to avoid dealing with their anger by not speaking and others explode with angry arguments when they do speak.
You may be tempted to use the children to communicate as a means of avoiding unpleasantness or conflict. However, using children to deliver messages creates problems for the children, who will feel torn and placed in the middle of conflict.
Children have loyalty to both parents. Children will most likely want to please everyone who is caring for them. Even if it seems as though the children are not bothered, asking them to convey messages will cause them harm. Never communicate with the other parent through your child.
Effective Communication Techniques
Effective communication can be encouraged by:
Active Listening: Acknowledge what the other person has to say. Listen without interrupting the other person. Hear the other person out before responding. Ask questions to clarify what the other person is saying. Do not attempt to mind read or jump to conclusions.
Personal Statements: Use “I” messages which reflect your feelings or attitudes. There are two parts to a message. The first part is a simple statement about how someone’s actions make you feel. The second part is a simple request for a change in behavior which is actually possible for them to do.
Using “I” messages is a way of letting the other person know how you are feeling about something. It also helps you maintain some control and keep the focus on the children.
An example of an “I” message: I feel sad when the kids cry because they miss you. I would like to find ways for us to work together so we can address their feelings.
- An example of an “I” message: I feel sad when the kids cry because they miss you. I would like to find ways for us to work together so we can address their feelings.
Using an “I” message is good as it does not blame the other person or sound judgmental. You are assuming responsibility for how you feel. “You” messages provoke bad feelings in the other person and are blaming.
An example of a “You” message: You are never around and you are always making the kids cry.
- An example of a “You” message: You are never around and you are always making the kids cry.
Restatements: Validate the other person’s statements by restating them in your own words. Restating the message conveys your understanding, even if you do not agree. Repeating out loud what you think you have heard the other person say also cuts down on misunderstanding. For example: It sounds as though you are sad about the children being upset and that you want us to solve this problem together.
Asking for Input: Invite discussion of how to solve a problem. For example: Tom didn’t make the football team and he’s really upset. Do you have any ideas of how we can help him through this right now?
Focusing on the Child’s Welfare: Avoid discussing what is fair or convenient for you. Focus on the needs of the child. Let your conversation be prompted by the question ‘what choice will serve the overall best interests of the child?’
Problem Solving: Adopt a problem solving approach:
- Be clear and specific about the problem
- Deal with only one problem at a time
- Let each person present their view on the topic
- Each listener indicates understanding by summarizing what the other person has said. This summary does not mean you agree, but that you understand.
- Brainstorm solutions
- Choose solutions that best meet the needs of the child
Separate Issues : Stick to one subject, stay in the present and avoid blame and/or sweeping generalizations (for example, 'you always...' or 'you never...'). Focus on child-related issues and not old disagreements. Avoid blaming yourself or the other party for what happened in the past. Stay in the present. Agree on the right to take time out from discussion to cool down if things get too heated.
Model Acceptable Communication: Set the communication tone. Be polite and show respect, even if you feel the courtesy is undeserved. Look for opportunities to express appreciation to the other person. Ignore negative comments and focus on the positive and on the children. Remain calm and don’t react. Do not fuel the other person's anger. Learn how to apologize and to take responsibility for your part in what goes wrong.
Practice: Practising good communication skills can help. It may feel strange at first to only talk about issues affecting the children but, in time, it will feel more natural.
What if we still have difficulty communicating?: You may wish to seek help from a professional, like a counselor or therapist, on this issue. There are also computer apps available that can assist communication between ex partners. There is generally a charge for these apps and they be should be used only after consultation with a professional, such as a lawyer or psychologist. You can do an online search for these resources.