“She was angry and vindictive,” he told me. Her husband had betrayed her love and trust by having an affair. Now it was payback time – and she wanted a chunk of his flesh, which she figured meant 75% of their joint assets in their divorce.
Unfortunately for her, the judge in the case had a reputation for always dividing the asset pie right around 50-50.
This not uncommon scenario in the family law arena – described to me by expert Texas family law lawyers Coye Conner and Kevin Fuller and then analyzed in a negotiation panel discussion I led before 1,800 of their colleagues – presents challenges any longtime legal or business negotiator will recognize.
The issue? How do you effectively negotiate with angry, vindictive individuals – and how do you negotiate if you’re the one feeling these emotions? Here are some suggestions.
1. Think before you shoot.
Whether you feel overcome with anger or your counterpart just let loose with a broadside on your character, don’t automatically shoot back in kind – justifiably or not. Both Coye and Kevin shared stories where just this type of reaction proved highly counterproductive.
In one negotiation, similar to the scenario described above, the wife’s lawyer started out with a presentation on the soon-to-be ex-husband’s extra marital exploits, including pictures taken by a private investigator. Before the presentation, the husband was feeling guilty and just wanted to get the divorce resolved as soon as possible – and was willing to pay a lot extra to do it.
After her “venting,” the husband told his lawyers to prepare for a long, dirty fight. Any interest in paying her extra to go away just went out the window.
2. Creatively explore the parties’ interests – in writing.
The wife in the above scenario wanted her chunk of flesh. That appeared to mean, to her, a much bigger share of their joint assets than their judge would provide if they went to court.
Given this relatively weak leverage, how could she achieve success?
She should explore whether she could accomplish her interests – psychologically making him “pay” for his conduct – in some creative, non-financial ways. After all, her financial demand for 75% of their assets was just a position she had taken that she thought would accomplish her goal. Other options needed to be explored.
Specifically what should she do? Write down everything that she believed is important to her husband – financial and otherwise. Include his interests in control over various assets and prized possessions that might be disproportionately important to him relative to their actual financial value. Then design a demand that – while closer to a 50-50 split financially – would still satisfy her fundamental interests.
Why do it in writing? Putting things in writing depersonalizes the dynamic and allows her to, in effect, vent on paper. It also will help her be more creative as she explores ways to resolve their situation. Private diaries often serve this same purpose in the context of personal relationships.
3. Be professional and ask them to step into your shoes.
My wife and I recently purchased a fairly expensive water device at our vacation home to balance the acidity in our well water. But it’s not working properly – even after the water company has been out two times to fix it. And now they want to replumb our pipes to “fix” it again.
Frankly, we are angry and disappointed – and we need safe water for our one-year-old and us to drink and use for cooking, etc.
What did we do? Instead of venting at the water company’s owner (which would have felt good), we told him how disappointed and frustrated we were and asked how he would feel if he were in our shoes. We then told him we had just lost confidence that his folks could resolve our situation.
Even though he had a reputation as a “difficult” person who had threatened a previous customer with litigation over a similar dispute, he did his own investigation and simply agreed to take the device back and refund our money.
Here’s the bottom line: nobody likes to negotiate with angry individuals. But next time you face an angry counterpart, or feel yourself starting to lose control, step back and strategically decide on the best approach. Explore the reasons underlying the anger and creatively consider ways to resolve it.
At the least, take a cooling off period. It will be time well spent.
Published August 28, 2006 The Business Journal