Talk Better – 12 Tips for Better Communication with Your Child’s Other Parent
September 4, 2019
This marks the ten year anniversary of “Talk Better”, so in lieu of a new MFLV article I am re-circulating Talk Better, reprinted below with the hope that it can be useful in your professional, family and everyday lives. Please feel free to pass it along to others as you deem appropriate. As always, thank you for your time and readership
Here are 12 tips to help parents communicate more effectively, especially about their children. These tips come from seeing countless couples fight over their children and their despair over being unable to communicate better. Of course, sometimes the parenting conflicts are beyond the reach of these communication tips alone, and professional help is needed. In many of those cases, though, consistent use of these 12 tips can improve communication, even if conflict continues. So here are a few simple things you can try if talking with the other parent always seems to end badly.
1. Change by example. This first tip may be the hardest. Often, years of bad communication have left both parents with strong emotions of frustration, disappointment, blame, loss, shame, and anger. It is normal to feel these emotions. These same emotions, though, can get in the way of productive conversation. Better communication often means recognizing these and other emotions within yourself and learning to set them aside or control them – at least until after the conversation ends and you are far from the other parent’s eyes and ears.
Remember that these strong emotions can make you stray from the true goal. No matter how you feel, what goes wrong, how difficult it is, the goal is for everything to be in your child’s best interest. If you can establish this common ground with the other parent, and keep your child the only topic of conversation, you can manage. Too often a conversation starts about the child, then turns to issues about the parents. These two topics need to remain separate. The strong emotion often arises when the two topics are unwittingly mixed.
This can be hard work, and the first tip to better communication might take a lot of effort, patience, and practice. The other parent may continue to provoke the same strong emotions during your conversations for a long time. It may help to admit to yourself that the other parent is feeling many of the same emotions, and just has never learned to talk better.
You have little control over whether or when the other parent will learn to talk better. You can do your own part to improve communication, though. You can help teach the other parent to talk better through your example. The sooner you start modeling good communication, the better. The longer you spend communicating badly, the more difficult it becomes to close the gap. The animosity can just build up past the point of fixing – at least without great effort. If instead of getting discouraged, you keep applying the 12 tips, it may surprise you to see how fast communication improves – just from the power of your example.
2. Hear it Back. This second tip may be the most important. Talking better means first listening better. Better listening has four steps: hear, repeat, check, and wait.
The first step is to hold your own thoughts and really hear what the other parent is saying. Talking sends lots of messages. You easily can overlook some or all of these without good listening. Often we are too busy either thinking about what we have to say or reacting to the first message we hear. The result is we rarely correctly hear all that is said. We wind up missing the true message and talking about the wrong thing. This causes a lot of communication frustration.
A better method is to focus hard at the beginning of the conversation on only what the other person is trying to say. You soon will discover the other person is saying a lot more than you originally thought. Facts, feelings, goals, priorities, concerns, and options can all be mixed into one statement. Your job is to identify correctly each of these. At first, taking notes while the other parent talks can help a lot. Write down all the things you think you hear so you won’t forget them in the next step. You can even write notes of your own thoughts and feelings as you hear what the speaker is saying.
The second step to better listening is to repeat back what you thought you heard. This allows you to make sure you got all the messages and got them all right. You can start out with a simple lead-in statement, such as “Let me make sure I heard you right . . . ” Often the other parent will be pleased with your effort to really hear them. This alone can improve communication.
The third step is to check with the other parent whether you got it right. When you have finished repeating everything you thought you heard, just say “Did I get everything you said right?” The other parent will quickly let you know if you get it wrong or missed something. If this happens, it is easy to get discouraged or upset, especially if they tell you unkindly. Instead of reacting to their unkindness, remember your goal is better communication, so just try again to repeat their original message correctly.
The last step is to wait and let the other person continue until they reach a point where they have said all they feel they need to say (while you apply the hear, repeat, check steps to each statement or topic). This way, you will have all the information available before you offer any response. It allows you to appreciate the whole of what the other person has to say.
Some professionals advocate taking a break before you respond, and some even suggest only one person talk per conversation. In this approach, the next time you and the other parent talk, you respond to what the other parent said and present your own views, while the other parent practices hear, repeat, check. At the end of each parent’s conversation “turn,” you schedule the next conversation. While this may seem stilted, cumbersome, and slow, it can be better than continuing current patterns of communication where no progress is ever made.
The next several tips will help you make the “hear” and “repeat” steps more effective.
3. No-Fault. This tip is all about the art of framing to make the conversation less personal. The same message can be presented many ways. If it is presented in an accusing, threatening, blaming, complaining, criticizing, or other personal way, the natural reaction will usually be either extremely defensive or extremely offensive (also known as “the best defense . . .”). The idea is to present a statement in a way that avoids stirring up strong emotional defense responses. This can be tricky, and lots of variations exist.
Personal involvement can be especially problematic in the highly charged atmosphere of child-related conversations between separated parents. A good rule to remember during the “repeat” phase (and at all other times) is to take the person out of the message. For example, statements such as “when you left me” can be replaced with “after the separation.” In this way, an objective fact or event has replaced the person. No need exists to defend against “the separation.” A strong need to defend one’s reasons for leaving usually greets the first statement, though, with all the blame minefields and distractions from message that result.
Words themselves can carry strong emotional content. Another rule worth remembering is to substitute words with less emotional power for emotionally loaded words. A common example is found in “custody” and “visitation,” especially when applied to children. These are two words full of ownership and possession meanings. They also have taken on win and loss elements. In the context of today’s “divorce society,” these words commonly signify acknowledgment as a full parent or reduction to something less. These words can become instruments of control and dominance, concepts best left out of conversations between parents about their children. “Parent” or “parenting” often can replace “custody.” In this way, a “Custody Agreement” becomes a “Parenting Plan;” a “custody schedule” becomes a “parenting schedule” and “sole custodian” and “visitation” can disappear altogether. This is only one example of many such loaded words, so be on the look-out for them.
In the same vein, phrases such as “my child,” “my son,” or “my daughter” rarely help when talking to the other parent. Frequent use of “we” and “our” will build more common ground than conversations steeped with “me, my, mine” pitted against “you and your.”
Another easy framing rule is to avoid “why?” questions – you can almost always ask the same question with “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” and “how” instead. Consider the two questions: a. Why did you do that? b. What made you do that? Most people experience these questions differently, even though they really ask the same thing. The first question includes an element of personal justification. It asks someone to explain thoughts and actions on a personal level. The second question, in contrast, asks for a cause and effect response that leaves out personal justification. The respondent can answer with just facts and objective observations. The respondent therefore likely feels less of a need to defend themselves, their thoughts, or their actions.
This section perhaps can be summed up best with advice overheard from another divorce practitioner: “If saying something about the other parent to them makes you feel good, you probably shouldn’t say it.” Put another way, it often helps to pretend a statement or question you wish to communicate has been directed at you. Then how would you feel?
4. Concerns. Too often parenting conversations get framed as having to solve a problem. The problem can be with the child’s behavior, the other parent’s behavior, or the consequences for the child of some third person’s behavior. The problem with having to solve a problem is that it invites solutions and decisions. These often are the source of conflict because we humans rarely see things exactly the same way. And we also often have trouble with control, which is an integral part of solutions and decisions, especially when they are presented as unilateral statements of the only correct answer.
One way to avoid the “problem” problem, is to speak in terms of concerns. Concerns get addressed, not solved. Concerns invite more questions, brainstorming, and creative problem solving, unlike positions, unilateral decisions, and control.
Consider this example: “Tommy’s grades are a problem;” or “Tommy has a problem with his grades;” or worse “The problem with Tommy is his grades.” This set of phrases invites a ready made solution in response – after all, problems must be solved. Even worse, the last phrase in this set really personalizes the problem as being Tommy. We saw above that personalizing the conversation can increase sensitivity and emotional defensiveness. So the last of the three example phrases can quickly cause a response that is defensive and emotional. One example might be “The problem with you is you are too tough on Tommy.” Even if true, this conversation is headed for trouble fast.
Now compare the example phrases above with: “I’m concerned about Tommy’s grades.” This invites questions and discussion in response. One example might be, “Oh, why are you concerned?” As we saw above, even better would be, “Oh, what is your concern?” Raising “concerns” instead of “problems” can lead to more questions, better information, and greater awareness of the parents’ shared interests – just from framing the discussion differently.
As part of this, it may help to make a positive comment about your child before you need to discuss a concern. For example: “I thought you might like to know that Tommy has shown excellent improvement at baseball. I would like to discuss how he can make similar progress with his grades.” The point is when parents no longer live together, one or both can feel left out of the child’s life. Reserve some conversations for just good news about the child. If you sometimes just give positive feedback, instead of always talking about concerns, you can build up goodwill for that inevitable not-so-positive conversation.
5. Options. A corollary to the “concerns” tip is to present solutions as options. After all, every solution idea is just an option until everybody agrees and adopts it. This means only a slight phrasing change is needed. Most people are more comfortable discussing an option than negotiating over someone else’s ideal solution. And options can be limitless, which allows for greater creativity, participation, and improvement. The goal of an “options” based discussion is to talk about all the options enough so that an agreed solution emerges. The resulting agreed solution often is better than the “ideal solution” any one person likely would have presented at the outset.
The example of Tommy and his grades might produce a typical solution-based statement that looks like this: “I think we should get Tommy a tutor.” Any response other than 100% agreement inevitably will lead to emotional involvement, because the speaker has put personal judgment and problem-solving skills on the line as part of this solution. To see the consequence of this, imagine the conversation after this statement if the other parent questions or disagrees with this solution in any way.
Now contrast the same conversation reworded as follows: “One option is to get Tommy a tutor.” The natural import is to invite other options and a discussion of them. No (or little) personal investment is openly broadcast with this statement. It is more easily heard as just one suggestion. It also invites a discussion of the different concerns related to this option, including cost, timing, schedule, effectiveness, Tommy’s feelings, etc. Discussing parenting concerns can have a very different emotional outcome if you speak in terms of options instead of solutions.
6. Ass-U-Me. The old joke about what happens when someone assumes things apply double or more to parental communication. We often assume the other parent’s feelings, motives, intentions, goals, etc. from the information we get in conversation. Some of this information is from voice tone and body language, some from the actual words used (which can often have several meanings), and some are from our previous experience of the other parent.
In conversations, especially about stressful or emotionally important topics, we often fill in missing data with assumptions that reflect our own feelings, perceptions, and experiences. This is normal human behavior. Normal can still be unhelpful, though.
It helps to focus on better listening instead. During the “hear” step, the key is to recognize our own assumptions and include them in the “check” step. This way, we can see if our assumptions are correct. One way may be to start out with a phrase such as “So, are you saying . . .” If we assume something incorrectly (which can happen to all of us) the other parent will be quick to let us know. Then we just apply the hear, repeat, check steps to better listening again until the other parent assures us we got it all right.
The last part of this tip is to avoid assuming bad motives or intentions from the other parent’s message. We rarely get the motives of others right, and too often ascribe unflattering or negative ones even with benign messages. Few parents will admit they have less than pure motives, so checking these out is unlikely to produce much goodwill. If you see only bad motives, instead try and limit the repeat step to only factual observations or events.
7. I statements. This tip also is aimed at avoiding defensive emotional reactions. Again, a simple phrasing change can make a big difference. This tip involves presenting your views, feelings, and thoughts, instead of projecting or speaking for the other parent. When you attempt to speak for or about the other person, natural resistance and defensive mechanisms kick in, and the listener’s reaction is affected. For example, a statement that starts with “You need to do XYZ,” easily can be perceived as an attempt to control or dictate behavior. If phrased instead with “I need you to do XYZ,” the emotional resistance and defensiveness of the response can be reduced. The need is shifted from the listener (who now has a choice in the matter) to the speaker (who is expressing only a personal need). As part of this, it also is important to leave room for the other person to say “no.” After all, they do have a choice. How we deal with their choice is just another part of the communication process.
8. Math. Yes, (unfortunately) math exists in communication too. There are positive and negative words and structures. Some ways of saying things add to effective conversation and some ways subtract from it. Awareness of this math helps in learning to “talk better.”
One example is the use of “and” (think addition) and “but” (think subtraction). Compare the two following sentences:
“I wanted to talk, but you were busy, so we had to wait.”
“I wanted to talk, and you were busy, so we had to wait.”
The first sentence stresses the middle clause and implies that somehow you were the cause for me having to wait. It invites an explanation or justification from you. The second sentence stresses the last clause, and simply acknowledges that waiting was the natural result of us having different interests. In many conversations, this subtle difference may be largely meaningless. In the highly charged and stressful context of discussions between separated parents, though, this difference may mean the conversation derails and fails. So a simple math rule is – practice addition by using “and,” and avoid using “but.”
Similarly, positive messages are far stronger than negative ones. And positive messages tend to engender positive responses, whereas negative messages often lead to a downward spiral of negative response and counter-response. Thus, phrasing ideas as positives instead of negatives is very important to effective communication. Many coaches know this rule. If you tell a young player “Don’t do X,” then X is often the first next thing they do. Instead, good coaches teach their players to “Do Y.” In a parenting conversation, this rule would mean replacing some of the following negative messages with the positive substitutes:
- You never let Tommy call me when he is with you vs. Tommy often wants to talk with the other parent, as you may have noticed he often calls you when he is with me, usually when I prompt him. He might like to call me when he is with you too.
- You’re not listening vs. It appears I’m having trouble getting my point across; let me rephrase and try again.
- I’m not like that vs. Here is what I intended, even if I may have given a different impression.
Obviously, such examples are limitless. Practice and awareness in our everyday conversation is an excellent way to come up with other examples. Practice and awareness also will reveal the power of changing from negative phrases to positive ones. Another simple math rule that helps is to stop using the word “not,” or its concept. This rule forces us to use positive phrasing instead. The result will be improved communication.
Finally, sometimes parenting conversations just need more words. We all have different speaking styles and habits. Some people naturally talk less. Often we hold back out of fear of hurting or inflaming the other person. In parenting discussions, though, it is sometimes best to say all that is important to the conversation. This may mean talking about things that are uncomfortable or could upset the other person. In this math, though, less is rarely more.
9. Time and Space. When and where conversations occur can make the difference between failure and success. Have you ever tried to reason with a tired and cranky child? What about a tired and cranky child who is hungry and standing in the cold? If so, you understand this tip already.
Set aside a time to talk when both parents are rested, have eaten, and have no competing demands for attention. Try and have the conversation in comfortable and familiar surroundings, or on neutral ground.
If you need the other parent to participate in a decision, for example about vacations or schedule changes, give them enough time and information to make the decision effectively. If you plan ahead, it is easy to avoid the communication stress that comes from feeling pressed to make a decision without enough time or information.
A little effort with time and space in mind can make a big difference in how well a conversation works.
10. Emotional Content. Often our conversations contain messages about the emotions we are feeling. Sometimes these are related to the substance of our conversation, and sometimes they are not. Sometimes we feel angry, frustrated, jealous, or suspicious because of the other participant in the conversation, or something that person said. Sometimes we are feeling these emotions for reasons completely unrelated to the other participant. Either way, such strong emotions can be damaging to effective conversation if they creep into the message.
This tip involves gaining awareness of and harnessing the emotional content of conversations. Harnessing the emotional messages in conversation requires being aware of emotional messages, looking for them, identifying them, naming them, and addressing them. It means hearing the emotions back. When you hear the other parent’s emotion coming through in conversation, it usually means they are addressing something of great importance to them. Hear back to them the emotion piece of their message. You might say, “It sounds like you may be angry (or frustrated, or jealous, or suspicious) about something, is that right?” Give them the opportunity to correct you on the emotion, or deny that it is part of their message.
If you properly identify the emotional content, and the other person agrees with you, the emotional content is acknowledged and together you can explore its significance to the conversation, whether it needs to be addressed as part of the conversation, and if so, what if anything can be done to improve the conversation. If you fear the other person will never admit the anger (or other strong emotion) you might try something like: “I know you are trying to say something important to me; all I can hear is your anger – I’m unable to hear your message. Can we try again later?”
Sometimes conversations become so emotionally fraught, or tense, or even abusive, that effective communication is impossible. This may be due to cursing, name-calling, unrelenting blame, shouting, constant interruption, or other ways the other parent talks to you. When this happens the appropriate response may be to end the conversation, and if possible reschedule it to a better time. An effective approach is to identify the behavior, indicate it must stop for the conversation to continue, repeat the warning if needed and if the behavior continues, end the conversation. For example, you might say, “I have asked repeatedly that the [interruptions/name-calling/cursing] stop and it continues. I cannot continue this conversation with [interruptions/name-calling/cursing] so I will hang up now. Let’s talk later when this is no longer part of the conversation. Goodbye.”
11. Little pitchers . . . have big ears. Your children should be the topic of discussion, not participants or observers or listeners in the discussion. The whole goal of effective parental conversation is for the parents to place the children first, and together find a way to make decisions about them. Children innately understand this and need to know this is happening, especially where the parents live separately. Shield your children from your parenting conversations, therefore, especially if conflict or disagreement is present.
Here are some hints to help this happen. Before starting a parenting conversation get your children out of hearing range and occupied so no interruptions occur. If you have to stop the conversation to enforce this, do it. Plan some alone time after each parenting conversation, especially if the discussions are stressful, to compose yourself before facing your children. After the conversation ends, avoid describing the conversation or the other parent, even to other adults in your household. If you need to sound off, release stress, or just talk about it, find a therapist, counselor, friend or confidant, and talk in private outside the home.
Never say anything bad about the other parent in front of your child. The more your child respects both parents, the easier parenting becomes. The other parent might eventually notice that you have been instilling a positive image and may follow your lead.
Finally, never underestimate the ability of children to take meaning from the world around them, including facial expressions, body language, overheard snippets of telephone conversations, or even silence.
12. Practice, practice, practice. Many of these tips are hard to remember and use when emotions run high and the stakes are your children. Improvement, though, only comes from practice and conscious effort. And we only fail when we stop trying – until then we are still trying to succeed. Reviewing these tips before each parenting conversation at first, and regularly even after that, will help you practice during the conversations. The attached quick reference guide can help with this. Imagining and planning the conversation beforehand with the 12 tips in mind also will help. After each conversation thinking about what went well and what went poorly, and even making notes for later review, can make the next conversation better.
An added benefit from practicing these 12 tips is your conversations with others will improve too. Your children will benefit from better parenting, and also from better conversations with you. And your example can teach your children to “talk better”.
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