Wendy Rubinyi, Instructional Design Specialist — Independent Contractor; Minnell L. Tralle, Extension Educator — Family Resiliency; and Heather M. Lee, Project Manager — Extension Center for Family Development
Good communication skills are important at any time in life, but especially after a family transition like divorce or separation. A family transition offers an excellent opportunity to improve your communication skills in order to create the kind of future you want for yourself and your children.
Talk it Out
Everyone needs ample time to talk about problems and concerns, as well as hopes and dreams. People going through a family transition often need to talk even more than usual in order to absorb and understand what’s happening.
Maybe you have underestimated how much you need to talk — even how much you need to repeat the same stories. Allow enough time, and talk to more than one friend. This way you avoid “wearing out” a friendship, and you’ll enjoy the benefits of multiple perspectives, ideas, and resources. Resist the urge to use your children as sounding boards or confidantes.
We all need someone who will listen without judging, giving advice, or making suggestions. Practice being that person! When someone else talks, try not to interrupt, respond immediately to someone’s story with one of your own, or make heroes or villains out of the people being discussed. By listening carefully, you will learn more about the other person.
If you’re the one doing the talking, seek out people who will provide this kind of open-minded, “neutral” listening. As you go through a family transition, it can be tempting to look for people who see the other parent as a villain so they can justify your negative feelings about the other parent. But this will only keep you stuck in your angry feelings. Conversely, you should avoid confiding in people who champion the other parent. This will make you feel bad about yourself!
All this means that the neutral ear of a caring friend is the best to give — and receive. Be a good listener and seek good listeners.
When you hear others talk, you may assume you understand everything they said, as well as their intentions and feelings. But be careful! It’s easy to misinterpret others — either because you don’t understand the meaning of their words, or because you’re getting the wrong impression from their body language or tone of voice. If you’re not clear about what the other person is trying to communicate, ask for clarification.
Conversely, others can misinterpret what you’re trying to communicate because they don’t understand the words you’re saying or you’re sending mixed signals through your body language or tone of voice. In any case, it’s your responsibility to think carefully about your choice of words and to be aware of the signals you’re sending through body language or tone of voice. Above all, don’t assume that you always understand what others are saying, or that they always understand you.
In order to improve your communication skills, you’ll need good feedback. You need to have the ability to ask a trusted friend, “What did you hear me say?” or “What do I sound like to you?” Then you can develop better communication skills based on their response.
You might also want to ask a trusted friend for observations about your marriage so you can learn from the past. If your divorce or separation came as a surprise, constructive feedback can help shed light on what might have gone wrong. Asking for feedback about the past, as well as the present, can also help you better understand your thoughts and emotions.
Break Away from Old Habits
Divorce or separation often results from years of misunderstanding. Your new life gives you the chance to break away from old communication habits that may have hurt you in the past and develop new ones to help you build a bright future for yourself and your children.
Darrington, J. & Brower, N. (2012). Effective communication skills: Resolving conflicts. Utah State University Extension.
Darrington, J. & Brower, N. (2012). Effective communication skills: "I" messages and beyond. Utah State University Extension.
Wichtner-Zoia, Y. (2012). Conflict resolution: Five simple tips for handling a difficult situation. Michigan State University Extension.
What Are Your Co-Parenting Strengths? (431 K PDF) — Every parent brings certain strengths (knowledge, experience, skills, etc.) to the parenting role. Use this worksheet to reflect on your own strengths, as well as the strengths of your co-parent.
Staying Connected to Your Children and Co-Parent — After a family transition like divorce or separation, children need their parents more than ever. Finding ways to stay positively connected to both your children and your children’s other parent will benefit your whole family in the end.