Tips for Good Electronic Communication

Tips for Effective Text & Email Communication between Separated Spouses

Separating spouses have many issues about which they must communicate and negotiate.  There are long term issues – who gets the house, what is best for the children, splitting the super and dividing the assets.  There are short term issues – how is last month’s phone bill going to get paid, who is getting the kids this weekend.  Some spouses want to talk about the relationship and the pain of separation.

Different ways to communicate

There are a number of different ways separated spouses can choose to discuss and negotiate  these issues including:

  1. Face to face (hereafter referred to as FtF).  This can be at home or on neutral territory such as a café.  FtF discussions can be planned and agreed, or be spontaneous such as when exchanging children.  They can occur in the presence of a third party such as friend or family member, doctor, or more formally with a mediator.
  2. Through third parties such a family, friends, lawyers or children (which should be avoided).
  3. Telephone.
  4. Letters and notes.  These might be exchanged in different ways including mail, direct exchange, children’s bags etc.
  5. Electronically via email or text (hereafter referred to as electronic communications or EC).  This is the focus of this page.

Special characteristics of electronic communications

Email and texts have distinctive characteristics including:

  1. They are sent and received in isolation from the other person.  This isolation reduces the ability for each person to check with the other that they have heard and been understood correctly.  There is therefore greater opportunity to misunderstand and be misunderstood.  Research also shows that physical isolation can reduce inhibitions on electronic communicators to be courteous and respectful.  On the other hand, in difficult relationships, physical isolation might avoid spouses’ acrimony for the other being triggered by their physical presence.
  2. You cannot control or know when or where the other person receives the message.  You cannot predict what mood they might be in.  The circumstances and mood in which your spouse receives the message (at work, whilst driving, with children, out partying) will effect how they deal with the message.
  3. It is unpredictable when your ex spouse might be able or choose to reply to your message.  They might have different technology to you which affects their ability to reply.  They might choose to take time to carefully consider and draft a thoughtful response.  Alternatively, they might send back a quick response in a tone which is more indicative of the circumstances in which they receive your message than their true views about your message.
  4. Text and email is text based.  They cannot communicate tone of voice, facial gestures or body language.  Some people cannot write as well as they can speak.  Electronic communications can only pass on part of the information that a face to face or phone conversation can.
  5. Electronic communications can be edited, stored, reviewed, printed and forwarded to other people.  They are more permanent than verbal communications.  Many people treat emails and especially texts as being similar to oral communications and write and send them without great thought or checking.

Tips for electronic communication with your spouse

Before sending (or replying to) a text or email consider:

  1. Do you need to communicate or respond?
    You do not have to respond to their communications.
  2. What is the best medium?
    It is your choice as to what medium (FtF, phone, via third party, arranging mediation, electronically) to use to communicate.  You do not have to reply to their communication using the same medium.  You do not have to reply in the same emotional tone.
  3. What is your purpose?     If it is to vent, criticize or complain – do not do it.  Text and emails are bad ways to raise difficult issues or communicate feelings about the relationship and separation.  You have very limited ability to change the point of view and behavior of your ex spouse (and no ability to change their personality).  You certainly will not do it via ECs.    Texts and emails are however great ways to confirm something previously discussed or provide straightforward factual information.
  4. Do not presume you correctly understand the other person’s thoughts and motivations.
    (a)     It is hard to understand the other person’s intended meaning without the tone of voice, facial gestures and body language when we are speaking directly with them.  In particular, do not presume that if the other person’s message made you feel bad that that was the intention of the other person.  Without attacking or criticizing, be curious and ask them.
    (b)     In drafting a message, carefully consider whether you know how they will react.  If in doubt, do not send it.
    (c)     The greater the conflict, the less accurately you will each be in assessing the other’s mindset and intention.
  5. Be careful with (and probably avoid humor) especially irony and sarcasm).  Your joke might be interpreted as a criticism.
  6. Save ECs before sending them.  Leave them for a few hours (or ideally overnight) and then review them before sending.
  7. If an immediate message is necessary (for example, arrangements need to be made to collect a child within the hour), restrict the message to the practical essentials (eg. time and place).  Omit references to how your ex got it wrong and “It better not happen again.”  How to avoid the difficulty occurring again is best left until after the immediate problem is resolved.
  8. Do not write texts or emails when angry or intoxicated.
  9. Emails and texts are not informal verbal conversations.  Do not write quick throw-away or “off the cuff” messages.  Remember that your messages can be saved, reviewed, printed and forwarded.  Do not send a text which you would be embarrassed for any other person to read.  Treat your ECs with your ex spouse as least as seriously as emails you send for work or business.
  10. Use ECs to make positive comments – do not just use them for problems.  Ideally, the positive exchanges in your ECs should significantly outweigh the negative.  If your ECs are dominated by acrimony, consider choosing new ways to communicate and negotiate.  Use them to thank your ex-spouse when appropriate or to pass on information such as school dates or photos you have taken of the children.  But be careful and consider how they might be interpreted by your ex.  A photo of your child’s last soccer game is better than one of him looking happy with your new partner at MovieWorld.
  11. Discuss with your ex spouse an agreed protocol of ECs.  This can include frequency, length, preferred phone numbers and email addresses, realistic reply times, agreed subjects for ECs.
  12. If you each exchange more than three emails or texts on the same issue, you probably need to switch to a different medium of communication.  This rule of thumb could be part of your agreed protocol.
  13. Consider giving pr forwarding a copy of this page to your ex-spouse. 

General tips for good communication

The following are common tips for good communication given to separated spouses engaging in mediation and counselling.  They are also useful for electronic communication:

  • Do not criticize or belittle the other person.  Instead explain how their actions make you feel.  Using “I statements”.  These involve describing how your emotions arise out of their behaviour.  The statement is therefore about you and the problem, rather than an attack on the other person.
  • Avoid absolute statements such as “never” or “always”.  These invite the other person to find an exception and thus avoid the substance of your concern.
  • Avoid offensive or inflammatory language.
  • Express your proposals as a request or suggestion (not a demand) which the other person can choose to accept or reject.  A proposal expressed as a demand is likely to be rejected because it is a demand (irrespective of its merits).  If your ex-spouse makes a demand in EC to you, do not dismiss it immediately.  Rather, say something like “Well, that’s one option for us to consider.  Before making a decision, let’s see what other options there might be.”

If you would like a copy of Matthew Shepherd’s research paper on this topic, please email your request to matthew@shepherdsfamilylaw.com.au.

Communicating with your ex spouse is not easy, and takes effort.  Consider the effort a gift you can choose to give to your children.  These tips can help.   If you would like a copy of Matthew Shepherd’s research paper on this topic, please email your request to matthew@shepherdsfamilylaw.com.au. Also see our page on Effective Communication.

 

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