January 8, 2019

Nathalie Boutet: How to negotiate a separation when your partner is a bully

Negotiating a marital separation when one of the spouses is a bully requires careful navigation to avoid a deadlock that only fuels discord and higher legal costs.

There are generally two broad categories of negotiation: distributive (positional) and integrative (interest-based).

In distributive negotiation, people formulate a position focused on what they want, and try to get it without regard for the other party’s concern. Bullying falls under this category.

In integrative negotiation, individuals share information about, and make concessions on, issues that are important to each other, with the goal of “expanding the pie” for both.

By using one of these three strategies, anchored in neuroscience and integrative negotiation, separating couples can increase the likelihood of a successful negotiation.

Prepare to engage your brain, not emotions

It’s often easy to become flustered and lose concentration around intimidating and forceful personalities, which makes us more vulnerable to irrational compromising. When this happens, the brain’s primitive limbic system fires up, which is mainly responsible for emotional reactions and a fight-or-flight response.

While this may be useful against a genuine threat to our safety or survival, it isn’t when we’re attempting to solve a problem because our ability to think and reason diminishes.

Becoming less susceptible to emotional triggering, especially by a bully, is possible and desirable.

One way to prepare yourself is by defining your intention.

Going into a meeting without a clear intention is like going on a trip without a destination. Akin to using a GPS, your intention will help your brain to focus on the roads you need to take and ignore any other distractions.

When a bully tries to take you off your game, you will be better equipped to resist getting derailed by the tactics you imagine the other person will use. And more likely than not, the other person will get flustered when you remain calm.

Humans are highly social, and we’re intuitively drawn to people and situations that make us feel connected

You can also prepare by knowing the facts. Bullies often exaggerate, make up information or twist reality — all techniques meant to upset and destabilize. But being acutely aware of the facts around the issues discussed, your strengths and weaknesses, and also their strengths and weaknesses, will make you more confident and less likely to feel threatened during negotiations.

Promote empathy

It’s natural, even for bullies, to become angry when confronted and attacked. Never respond in kind. Bringing anger to a negotiation will only put both of you in a fight-or-flight situation, and is more likely to result in failure.

Humans are highly social, and we’re intuitively drawn to people and situations that make us feel connected or part of a group. When we feel connected with someone, our bodies release oxytocin, a hormone that helps to promote empathy, trust and collaboration.

Common etiquettes and simple social techniques can encourage problem solving and collaboration during negotiations. This is why mediators often break the ice with personal stories and serve drinks and food at meetings. It can be as simple as pleasant introductions, and using language that unites rather than incites.

Legal dialogue, often filled with aggressive expressions such as “the opponent” or “the other side,” can unconsciously trigger negative responses, versus neutral words such as “negotiation partners” that can foster a more cooperative attitude.

It’s helpful to make compromises on small issues first, and take the lead demonstrating reasonableness. This strategy creates trust and fosters collaboration for the bigger issues.

To avoid triggering the other person, be mindful of how you present your compromise, show willingness to agree with their ask first, and then make your counter-ask. For example, “I will pay the support you want if I can have the cottage,” instead of, “First you need to agree to give me the cottage before I will pay the support you want.”

Know when to walk away or bring additional help

Of course, it’s not always possible to reach an agreement.

In this case, you should take time out. This allows adrenaline and cortisol to dissipate so you can process information from a higher cognitive-thinking place. In certain cases, it may be necessary to walk away from bullying tactics to avoid accepting a bad deal.

You could also hire an integrative-trained expert. A neutral expert trained in integrative thinking or interest-based negotiation can present information in a non-threatening way, which may foster our natural inclination to empathy and cooperation.

Handling the conversation with thoughtfulness, maturity and composure will not only set you aside. It can help you achieve success in your negotiation.

Nathalie is a mom, family law lawyer, mediator, family enterprise advisor and public speaker. This piece was originally published on Huffington Post.