You can co-parent effectively after divorce or separation — if you are aware of some of the common pitfalls that get in the way.
Mediator Erik Wheeler offers tips from his practice on how to have good communication with the other parent.
1) Get specific about parent-child contact details
One issue that I see frequently as a mediator is disagreements about parent-child contact time (aka “visitation”). The disagreement usually arises because there is a lack of clarity in the parenting agreement. The most challenging situation is when the agreement specifies that all or some of the parenting time will be “as agreed”. In other words, “we’ll figure it out as we go”.
Well, unfortunately, people often have trouble figuring it out later.
Other vague language creates problems, too. For example, one phrase I have seen written by a judge is, “The parties shall alternate holidays from holiday to holiday and from year to year by agreement of the parties.”
Which holidays are included? Is July 4th considered a holiday? What about President’s Day? On which holiday will the alternation start? What happens if they alternate each holiday for the first year, but that results in each person having all the same holidays the following year?
All these issues came up for some clients of mine with a court order that had the sentence above, and it created a significant amount of misunderstandings and conflict.
Specify more details than you think you need
I recommend that parents get very specific about their plan for the routine schedule, holidays, school vacations, summer vacations, and when the kids are home sick from school. I suggest that you specify times and even locations for transitions. This applies whether you are creating the parenting plan for the first time in divorce mediation, or updating an existing parenting plan.
If you specify details, you have a plan to follow if you can’t agree. And if you can agree on a change to that agreement, great! You can make whatever changes you like as long as you both agree.
For example, if you plan to “alternate Thanksgiving”, what does “Thanksgiving” mean? For some people, it’s just the day (maybe 9:00 am – 5:00 pm). For others, it would be the afternoon and evening (say, 12:00 – 8:00 pm). And for others, it would mean three or four days, because they always travel a distance to have Thanksgiving with family.
Christmas is often similarly complex. Will you split the day? Is Christmas Eve included with Christmas, or will the children be with the other parent on Christmas Eve?
I recommend that you think it through carefully, and specify a lot of detail — even if it seems unnecessary. You can always change the plan for a particular holiday later if you both agree. And if you disagree, you have a plan to follow. This will keep you out of court, and perhaps mediation too, reducing stress and saving money and time.
I suggest you think through specific details for sharing time for the following:
- Routine schedule
- School vacations
- Summer vacations
- Sick days (kids home from school)
- Snow days
When my divorce mediation clients are feeling quite amicable, it often seems silly to them to specify exactly what time the holiday will begin at a parent’s house, and when it will end. Sometimes a couple has been separated for a while, and they’ll say, “It’s never been a problem. We’ve always figured it out.”
I tell them that’s great, and hopefully, it will continue. However, it’s not unusual for the relationship to change over the years, so I encourage people to get specific, even if it doesn’t seem necessary right now.
This detailed parenting plan will be a backup for you — if you can’t agree later, you can fall back on this plan, which will reduce conflict and stress.
Even with a specific plan in place, it’s inevitable that one of you will want to request a change. So it’s important to have a plan for how to handle those requests.
2) Make a plan for handling schedule changes
No matter how well you plan your parent-child contact time (also known as “visitation” or “custody”) in your parenting agreement, you will encounter situations in which you or the other parent requests a change to the plan.
Sometimes it’s because family is in town visiting, or there’s a unique opportunity for the kids involving travel that would require a change to the routine schedule.
Each time you deviate from the schedule, you’ll need to discuss it, and this is an area where a lot of people get into conflict after divorce. So it’s best to have a plan for how to handle those requests.
Mode of communication
First, consider what mode you’ll use for communication: phone call, email, text message, or in person.
It’s tempting to send off a quick text, saying “Hey I’d like to have the kids a few extra days through next weekend while my parents are here”.
Text messages are very convenient — and they are frequently problematic. Because texts are best suited to very short messages, it’s really easy for the recipient to misinterpret the message because of a lack of information. What seems like a simple question to you may trigger anger and resentment in the other person, and spark an argument.
In general, I recommend you never discuss schedule changes by text and instead use phone or email. If you tend to get into arguments when talking on the phone, then use email. See #4 for more info.
How to ask
Propose make-up days: When requesting a change, be sure to ask the other parent when he/she would like to make up the time. Resentments are often created when the other parent fears that the request will result in lost parenting time. By addressing this as part of the request, you make clear that you are respecting their parenting time.
Be flexible with each other: you will need to request a change to the schedule in the future, so a lack of flexibility on your part may be met with the same response to your request.
See #3 for more tips on keeping your request brief, informative and forward-looking.
How long before acknowledging the request?
One source of conflict is when the requestor does not receive any reply to the request, and therefore doesn’t know whether the request was received. So it’s helpful if you can agree on a process for simply acknowledging the request.
For example, perhaps you’ll agree that an email is acknowledged within 12 or 24 hours, and if you can’t provide an answer immediately, provide an estimated time frame. A simple “Ok, I’ll get back to you by Friday” suffices.
You’ll also need to agree on what a reasonable amount of time is for providing an answer to the request if the recipient needs some time.
How long before answering the request?
Another source of conflict regarding schedule changes is different ideas of what amount of time is reasonable for a decision about the request. If the requestor expects a response within hours, but the recipient prefers to have a few days to reply, it often creates conflict.
Agree on a timeline that works for both of you. For example, perhaps you agree that you’ll provide an answer within 3 days of the initial request.
3) Use business-like Communication
With a former spouse, it is easy to let resentments or tensions complicate your communication. We often want to remind them of past transgressions or place blame. When things get heated, we might use criticism or insult, which of course makes everything worse.
One way to change the tone of discussions is to approach them as you would a colleague at work. In a work meeting, you wouldn’t insult the other person (at least I hope you wouldn’t!). You’d keep the tone professional, and when you get frustrated, you’d breathe deeply and try to find a way to reach your goal, while communicating politely.
Now, just to be clear: in this context, “business-like” doesn’t mean “cold” or “harsh” or “aggressive”. It means “professional” — the way you would behave at your job.
In a meeting at work, you’d be professional, patient, collaborative, and polite as you work to achieve your goal. You’d also have reasonable boundaries.
So when you need to have a discussion or meeting with the other parent, make it as business-like as possible:
- Set an agenda ahead of time: Providing some structure will help the conversation stay on track.
- Make a request: Your request is most likely to be successful if it is brief, informative, and forward-looking.
- Don’t lean on the past to justify your request: If you start your request by listing your frustrations about the other parent’s past transgressions, you’re setting yourself up for failure — it will just put the other person on the defensive, making them less likely to agree to your request. They’ll be more focused on refuting your statements than listening to your request! It’s easy to fall into this trap. Don’t start with your frustrations about the past!
- Focus on the logistics, not on the feelings: Even if you’re angry about past events or the other person’s behavior, stay focused only on the logistics. Focus on the details of who, what, when, and where.
4) Understand which mode of communication works best.
When communicating with the other parent, there are a variety of modes you can choose from: phone call, text message, email, meeting in person, or using a parenting application. Each mode has advantages and disadvantages. Text messages and email are convenient, but the written word is prone to misinterpretation because it lacks the additional meaning that body language and tone of voice add to the message. Text messages are particularly problematic because we usually want to write our message quickly — rather than thoughtfully — and the messages often lack important detail.
Meeting in person adds the human element to your interaction, and adds valuable information from the tone of voice and body language. However, meeting in person can be more likely to create conflict for some people. Or one person may not feel safe meeting with the other parent.
Phone calls offer some of the benefits of an in-person meeting and avoid some of the disadvantages of written modes. But for some people, phone calls can also lead to escalation and conflict.
As you work with the other parent, think about which mode works best for you. If you have problems communicating in a particular mode, consider whether the disadvantages of that mode are getting in the way.
Also, if possible, choose the communication mode based on the content: use the written modes (text and email) for interactions that don’t require much discussion, and use more interactive modes for more complex topics. For example, if you just want to communicate that the child forgot a backpack at your house, a text message is fine. If you want to talk about changing the schedule over the holidays, a text message is probably not going to work well and may cause more problems than it solves.
Keep in mind that which mode tends to work well for you may change over time. You may find that in-person meetings work well for a while, then aren’t working so well. Be ready to try a different mode for a while.
5) Use BIFF for making requests.
Attorney and mediator Bill Eddy coined the acronym “BIFF” for how to respond to high-conflict people in writing, which stands for “Brief, Informative, Friendly, Firm”.
For making requests to the other parent, I suggest a slight modification of this acronym, to use “forward-looking”.
Sometimes our communication goes awry with the other parent because we want to list the other parent’s transgressions or faults in our request. Whether our perspective is true or not doesn’t matter — this focus on the past completely sabotages communication from the beginning.
To be successful in your request, craft your request along with the following points:
- Brief: if your message is long, it’s likely that you are including information that will not be helpful or may create more conflict. If it’s long, it is frequently because the message lists the other parent’s faults or past transgressions. Keep it short: just 5 or 6 sentences.
- Informative: provide some useful information on the subject being discussed. Don’t include your opinion, or a defense — just facts, in neutral terms.
- Forward-looking: stay focused on the future, and make your request about what you’d like in the future, not about the things that made you angry that preceded your request. It’s tempting to include details on the other parent’s shortcomings and mistakes, as people think it makes their “case” stronger for the request. But it’s pretty unlikely the other parent will agree with your characterization of the past, and it’s very likely to create an argument and derail your discussion. Stay focused on the future, remember your goal, and ask for what you’d like in the future.
- Friendly: this can often be a challenge, but it’s important. Add a friendly tone with a simple phrase like “Thanks for your email”, or a closing phrase like, “Hope you have a good weekend”.