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How Written Communication Can Help You Improve Family Relationships

We all have heard the expression “actions speak louder than words.” Well, some people believe that the written word sometimes speaks louder than the spoken word, and I’m one of them. There are times when face-to-face communication, video chats, or even phone calls are too difficult or uncomfortable for people. That’s where written communication can come in, and these days it can take many forms: text, email, social media messaging, a written note handed to someone, and even an old-fashioned letter in the mail. 

What are the benefits of written communication? 

  • Starting out by putting what you want to say in written form can be good preparation for a face-to-face or telephone discussion, if that’s your goal.
  • It reduces the vulnerability of the writer and the recipient. It provides some emotional “distance” which can prevent impulsive, over-emotional reactions.
  • When writing, one can be much more focused and articulate than when communicating face-to-face. You can revise your written words as many times as it takes until you get them exactly how you want them.
  • Writing can be a safer way to expose destructive secrets. It could even be the main purpose.
  • You can gauge your recipient’s willingness to admit to, and work on, a mutual problem together, simply by how they respond to your written words.
  • Teens and parents struggle together at times, sometimes quite severely and/or quite often. Written communication can tone this down and make for better listening, and thus more constructive communication. I’ve seen this often in my work with families and have seen it in my personal life as well.
  • After all is said and done, each person will have tangible documents that can be referred to in the future for any reason.

Do’s and don’ts when writing

  • When and why should you write? When it’s hard to focus on a problem face to face; when you don’t want to miss important points; when you need to make revisions; when you want your message to be received on a more personal level. 
  • Don’t hold back. Now is your chance to say everything you ever wanted to say but were afraid to.
  • Clearly state your intent for writing and what you’d like the reader to do.
  • Be very clear and not subtle.
  • Be specific. Say what has been missed because communication was less candid in the past.
  • Don’t play the victim and don’t apologize unless you’ve actually done something wrong.
  • Be assertive and not sappy.
  • Be wary if the reader responds with an outward message that seems OK at first but that – after further reflection – leaves you wondering what their real message is.

The awesome potential of the written word

Being a mental health guy, I want to tell you about a research study and a cutting-edge treatment program I read about recently in Time magazine. Several suicide treatment centers/programs have begun a novel approach to following up on clients’ welfare after they leave the program. After discharging patients, the facilities send periodic follow-up letters to them for years afterward. The letters are very casual and non-committal, carrying with them no obligations: “It’s been a while since you were here, and we hope you’re doing well. If you want to drop us a note, we’d be glad to hear from you.” A 2017 study showed that these letters reduced the likelihood of suicide by one-third. 

And in the 1970s, a California psychiatrist tracked 800 suicidal patients for five years after discharge. The group who received such letters mailed experienced a lower suicide risk for all five years. So these particular applications of written communication are evidence-based, but deceptively simple – they regularly communicate “I care about you.” 

Just look at the power that was brought to bear for people who were very near to ending their lives, and then think what written communication could do for the rest of us who struggle with less intense issues. If written communication is done well, the potential is great and the risk is minimal.

If you use written communication to discuss relationship problems with family or friends and you are unable to patch things up with them, at least you can be a bit better off with the reality of a not-so-good relationship than with the myth and deception of a positive one. A book on this topic that you may consider is “Letters Home – How Writing Can Change Your Life” by Terry Vance, PhD. Give it a try and see if it works for you. I’ve recommended it to many families and clients in the past, and most reported that it worked well for them.


Jim Catlin is a licensed clinical social worker who holds a master’s degree in guidance and counseling from UW-Stout. He invites readers to submit questions and offer ideas about what they would like to see in this column by emailing editor@ChippewaValleyFamily.org.


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Jim Catlin  author

Jim Catlin is a licensed clinical social worker who holds a master’s degree in guidance and counseling from UW-Stout. He invites readers to submit questions and offer ideas about what they would like to see in this column.