by Michele Sacks Lowenstein, Attorney, California State Bar Certified Family Law Specialist, Lowenstein Brown, A.P.L.C.
Trying to negotiate a divorce in a conference room with either a mediator or two attorneys is hard work. However, the result can be worthwhile if you bear in mind that you are a parent forever and the story of your divorce will, ultimately, be your child’s story as well.
An important component of successful negotiation is the use of language during these negotiations. Words express how we think about and see life. The words we use are symbolic of our perspective on life. Some people may wonder why the use of language factors so heavily into these negotiations. In my experience most people going through a divorce don’t want to end up in court. They do, however, want to feel that they have been heard by the other person and efforts were made on both sides to address each party’s issues and concerns.
Consider that when people have filed for divorce they are already at a point where they are unable to communicate effectively and are probably unable to communicate effectively about anything. Participating in divorce negotiations requires people to do something they probably haven’t done in a long time; they must listen to each other in a new way where they no longer jump to conclusions about what the other person is saying.
It’s not easy. In fact, it is hard. However, it can be done. And, it can be done successfully so long as each party is aware that they can each frequently press the other’s “hot button” without even meaning to do so.
So, here are five tips for the successful discussion and negotiation of a divorce.
1. Stay Away From Polarizing Language.
Using the terms “custody” and “visitation,” while accurate, tends to draw battle lines. Expressing the child sharing plan in terms of “I want to have custody and I want you to have visitation” will certainly cause the other parent to begin to focus on the terms “custody and visitation.” The focus, in fact, should be on a parenting plan that works for the child and not on the terms. Parents who focus on working out the times the child will be spending with each of them rather than arguing over the terms “custody and visitation” will be more successful in their negotiations. And, being more successful in the negotiating process means that these parents will ultimately be more successful in their co-parenting post divorce. Ultimately, the parents are more likely to stay out of court, which causes less stress to the children and to them. So, everyone comes out ahead.
2. Frame the Issues in a Non-Combative Manner.
I have been in a number of negotiations where we have reached an impasse on an issue and have decided to move onto another issue. Unfortunately, someone may say “We can fight about that later,” when the non-combative way of phrasing this is “We’ll put this on our list to discuss later.” It may seem small, but framing issues in terms of having to be fought out later rather than discussing them makes a huge difference in the mindset of the parties who are experiencing the divorce. People have already had their share of “fights” and don’t need to be gearing up for another one.
3. Engage in Interest Based Negotiations Instead of Position Based Negotiations.
Positional based negotiations are adversarial as the “other side” or “opposing party” is seen as an opponent. (Again, labels play a large part here). Reluctantly, a concession will be given. Reluctance leads to resentment and this, of course, results in either the negotiations breaking down or the parties litigating issues in the future. Also telling someone that you are not going to change your position is not conducive to reaching resolution as it only causes each party to dig in their heels. Interest based negotiations seek to find an outcome that is mutually acceptable to both parties. Of course, neither party can generally meet all of their goals and objectives but it is important that each party work with his or her professional team to set forth realistic goals and objectives and see if a solution can be fashioned which will benefit both parties.
4. Don’t Refer to Your Soon to Ex in the Third Person.
Sometimes a person will refer to his or her spouse as “he” or “she” rather than using the other person’s name. While it is understandable that doing this is part of venting anger and frustration, referring to someone in the third person as if they aren’t even the room only serves to create additional conflict because that person will feel they are being diminished. People who feel their feelings are being diminished are not likely to be able to act in a constructive fashion to resolve issues.
This applies especially to lawyers who tend do this or, even worse, refer to the parties possessively as in “your client” or “my client.” This is very de-personalizing.
5. Don’t Curse, Please.
It should be evident that using four letter words during a business meeting is unprofessional and disrespectful. However, it is amazing how many people actually do swear during negotiations. Using curse words will not bring resolution to any issues but will only serve to cause people to focus on the fact that “them is fightin’ words.” Learning how to express oneself not only allows for improved communication but also provides for a better understanding of one’s own feelings.
As Margaret Thatcher once said: “Watch your thoughts for they become words. Watch your words for they become actions. Watch your actions for they become habits. Watch your habits for they become your character. And watch your character for it becomes your destiny. What we think, we become.” Good advice for everyone.