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How Good Emailing Can Improve a Bad Relationship

BC Distance Family Mediation Blogby Susanna Jani

Today, you are in for a real treat. Jane Henderson, Q.C., our perennially popular blogger and member of our distance mediation team, is back with another of her signature frank, but light-hearted, posts. I hope you are settled into a comfortable chair because this is one you’ll want to read to the end!

* * *

So, you have finally got a settlement and a parenting plan that you can live with. It was a long and difficult battle but it is over and time to move forward. Your Family Law Professionals have suggested that since you and your Ex are unable to communicate in person without it degenerating into a shouting match, and you can’t talk on the phone without someone slamming the receiver down, you should limit your communication to email. Or perhaps you live in different communities and have settled using distance mediation, so email is the best method of communicating.

Email seems like a perfect solution. It is written — so no shouting. It is a record — so everyone should be respectful. Writing gives one time to think about what one wants to say — so no emotional outbursts. It is right there in black and white — so no misunderstandings.

Well, maybe. If, like most of us, you have ever been on the receiving end of an email which you thought was aggressive, or have been surprised that an email which you sent offended the recipient in some way, or was completely misunderstood, then you will appreciate that communicating by email in a positive way is as much a skill as any other kind of productive communication. You likely also know that, if you and the recipient have a history of misunderstandings and antagonism, bad emails can make a bad situation even worse.

The good news is that it is not difficult to communicate productively with email if you follow a few simple rules. Even better, improved communication will likely improve your relationship. These are my Top 10 Rules for doing that:

  1. Be clear in your own mind about what you want to accomplish before you send the email (e.g., You would like him/her to keep the kids an extra day …..).
  2. Be direct but polite; don’t try to be tricky.
  3. Start with a salutation. It doesn’t have to be formal: “Hi” and your Ex’s name is fine.
  4. End with a closing: “Thanks for considering this” and your name.
  5. Don’t use capitals except for proper nouns and the first letter of the first word in a sentence. CAPITALIZED WORDS IN EMAILS ARE EASILY INTERPRETED AS SHOUTING.
  6. Similarly, don’t use multiple exclamation points!!!!! (unless you are conveying something the recipient will think is good news too) or question marks????? Both come across as being aggressive.
  7. Stick to the necessary facts and your real question. Don’t use email to deliver a lecture, commentary, advice or instruction — unless the instruction has been specifically requested.
  8. If a request is made of you in an email and you are saying “No”, you don’t have to give excuses, lengthy reasons, or say why you think the request is out of line. It is enough to say “I am sorry but I can’t help you out this time” — always accompanied by a salutation and civil closing.
  9. If a time limit for the response is needed, put it in your email, but don’t ask or expect that it be immediate. Give at least 24 hours; the longer the time you can give, the better. (And don’t follow up with capitalized exclamatory requests for a response. You know s/he is going to get great satisfaction in hitting the “Delete” button.)
  10. Don’t send or reply to emails in haste, unless it is a legitimate emergency — that is, someone’s health or life is in immediate danger. Take as much time as possible before you hit the “Send” button. If there is the remotest possibility that you have not said what you want to say in a civil and respectful tone, send it to yourself first. Look at it the next day and make sure it says exactly what you want in a civil and respectful way.
    Here are some examples of what I am talking about:

Let’s say you would like your Ex to take the kids this weekend because you have plans that don’t include them.

You could send this email:

Since you are always nagging me to be flexible, I am willing to trade my weekend with the kids this week for your weekend next week. But don’t drag this out. I need to know now.

Followed up a couple of hours later by:

So do you want the kids or not??????

The reply might come back as:

Of course I want the kids. I ALWAYS want the kids. They come FIRST in my life, not like in some people’s. But I have a life too and I am not your babysitter. You are supposed to be responsible for them this weekend and, besides, we have plans for next weekend. So I guess you will just have to put them first and be a responsible parent for a change.

You may now feel entitled to respond:

Well FINE!!! Just don’t expect me to be flexible when you want to make a change!!!

And so, the toxic cycle continues. Neither of you is going to feel very good about it and neither of you got what you want. Your Ex would have been happy to have the kids but didn’t want to swap weekends, so ended up without them. You are either going to have to pay a babysitter or miss your event because you asked to swap weekends instead of asking for what you really wanted, which was to have the kids go to the Ex. The tone of the emails makes any sort of discussion about options or alternatives pretty difficult.

On the other hand, you might try sending this email:

Hi Robin: Something has come up this weekend and I am wondering if there is any chance you could take the kids? I would like to swap weekends, but if that doesn’t work for you, it would still be a big help to me if you could take them this weekend. I would be glad to do the same for you another time. Could you please let me know by Wednesday? If I don’t hear from you by Wednesday, I will assume that doesn’t work for you and make other plans. Thanks, Tony

Then Robin is more likely to respond:

Hi Tony: I am happy to have the kids this weekend, though sorry that the swap won’t work for me. I expect I will need to ask you to take one of my weekends later this fall. Let me know when you will drop them off. Cheers, Robin

Or Robin’s response might be:

Hi Tony: Sorry I can’t help you out this weekend, but would be happy to do it another time. Cheers, Robin

The point is that what Tony really wanted was for Robin to take the kids this weekend. If they could do a swap, that would be a bonus. By asking in a direct, yet respectful, way Robin is more likely to agree; even if s/he doesn’t, the door is left open for it to happen another time. Neither person needs to feel that they have “lost” anything, and neither is left feeling angry or attacked. More importantly, they have had a civil, respectful exchange — the first step to a civil, respectful relationship.

In some cases, a respectful request will still result in an aggressive or hostile response. Even if this happens, don’t succumb to the temptation to reply in the same way. One of you may have to be the first to break the toxic cycle, so let it be you. It is hard to maintain hostility if it is not reciprocated.

The moral of this story is:

Don’t underestimate the power of email communication, for bad and for good. Use it wisely and you will improve communication and your relationship.


Susanna Jani

For a decade, Susanna Jani was Roster Administrator for the B.C. Mediator Roster Society*, managing its day-to-day operations, activities and projects, including the initial research phase of the Distance Family Mediation Project. In 2009, she followed her passion for this environmentally-friendly project and became Project Coordinator for its second, pilot… MORE >

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