The Five Tenets

Warning: this might not be a legal article.

I don’t have any letters after my name (Ph.D., etc.) that give the following any scholarly weight. Granted, I took nine whole hours of psychology in college, but that was (gulp) 30 years ago and I don’t think I aced the classes. But, contrary to some opinions, I am a person and have dealt with other persons. And, after practicing family law for more than 25 years I kept noticing that while all cases are different, they all have a common theme: communication. Or more precisely, bad communication. Okay, maybe bad is too strong a word, but in my experience communication can always be better. That is probably true in all aspects of life, but a divorce or custody case is usually where months or years of faulty communication come to a head. After observing similar patterns for so many years, it seemed to me the best way to address the problem would be proactive.

I started thinking about why parties to a case, particularly a case that goes to trial, are so opposed to one and other. Granted, some of the blame goes to the lawyers. Lawyers can be bad communicators, which is odd given that is what we are paid to do, but it is true. Knowing the law, and being able to communicate that knowledge with clients, judges and other lawyers, are two separate issues. But lawyers cannot be totally to blame, and the fact is lawyers come into the situation after the problem already exists. After the communication has already broken down and created the problem.

If communication could/should be better, is there a model that could be followed in a family law case? One that might work better in such a stressful situation? I think so. Again, I am not a psychologist, and there are thousands of books, programs, websites, apps, and seminars on this subject. That information can be helpful, and I encourage you to review it along with this article. But the one thing that I found lacking was the legal perspective, and the model I think works best in a legal case is being positive.

I know, I know, how can a lawyer dealing with child custody cases think of anything positive? Actually, about 15 years ago I noticed most custody cases involved telling a judge why a parent did something wrong. Sometimes the evidence did support that position, and while anything a parent does that negatively impacts a child should be addressed in a custody case, it does little to help a judge understand what the other parent is doing that is positive. That is really the thing to remember: a judge needs to know good things about a parent if the judge is going to make a decision that is in a child’s best interests. So I started focusing my clients and cases on being positive.

I find that the positive quality judges tend to value most is how well a parent supports the relationship between the child and the other parent. The reason I think that factor weighs more than others is because it is difficult to attain. If a parent can put aside their personal feelings about the other parent so the other parent has a good relationship with the child, then clearly the first parent is thinking about the child’s well-being and not their own agenda. When a judge is trying to determine if one parent is working towards making sure the child has a good relationship with the other parent, usually the judge is paying close attention to how the parents communicate. To be fair, positive communication can be difficult with people that you like. If we change that to communication with someone you don’t like, then positive communication is sometimes non-existent. But parents must communicate, and judges believe that fact. That said, most judges handling family law cases understand the reality of the situation. Most judges expect communication will be bad. So, what better time to show a judge that you can communicate positively?

I know, I know, it is easy for me to lecture about positive communication. I don’t have to deal with the #@!%! (other parent). True. You can ignore this article and keep doing what you have been doing for months or years. But ask yourself this: has it been working? If not, why not try something different? If it doesn’t work, you can always go back to yelling and name calling.

The idea is what I call the five tenets, and they should be the first things you think of before you communicate with the other parent. They should govern how you communicate. So before you respond that text message, that email, or say something during a parenting time exchange, consider:

  • Speaking/listening with kindness
  • Holding your boundaries
  • Being positive
  • Being honest
  • Showing grace

In the coming articles I will try to expand on these tenets, and why I think they are important. I will give some relatable examples that hopefully you can use in your communications with the other party. Heck, you might even find something you can use in dealing with a friend, co-worker or stranger. The point is this: all of us can communicate better. We are all unique and have our own viewpoints, and trying to convey some of those ideas to another person with their own unique viewpoints can be difficult. The above tenets will not solve problems with communication, but they might make it better. They might help to get your point across, and even help reach an agreement. They might relieve some stress, and really, wouldn’t that be nice? If the past year has taught me nothing else, it is that anything that can take away some stress is worth considering. Thanks for reading.

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