In any situation where people find themselves in conflict with others, it is common to find ourselves wishing that people were more alike in their thoughts and actions and that they would just act “normally.” What we are really saying is, “I wish other people were more like me and things wouldn’t be so difficult.” Unfortunately, the world is made up of complex, emotional individuals, all with their own view of the world.
Of course, one way to resolve conflict in family law cases is to resort to court, ignoring people’s feelings and emotions. While this may yield in a final decision, in family law, as opposed to other types of civil litigation, parties must often continue to interact for the next several years, and a “win” in the courtroom may easily result in a “lose” in post-trial relationships.
In negotiations of any type, “people get angry, depressed, fearful, hostile, frustrated, and offended. They have egos that are easily threatened. They see the world from their own personal vantage point, and they frequently confuse their perceptions with reality. Routinely, they fail to interpret what you say in the way you intend and do not mean what you understand them to say.” Fisher, Ury & Patton at 56. The added frustration, hurt, anger and personal stake in family law matters heightens those feelings.
One of the main goals of a collaborative attorney is to avoid being part of the “People Problem” and to instead help find a way through the tangle of interpersonal issues. It is useful to think in terms of three basic categories: perception, emotion, and communication in finding bridges for communication.
Recognizing and understanding a person’s perceptions (the view as another sees things), is key in keeping the collaborative process on track. However, “It is not enough to know that they see things differently. If you want to influence them, you also need to understand empathetically the power of their point of view and to feel the emotional force with which they believe in it. To accomplish this task, you should be prepared to withhold judgment for a while as you “try on” their views.” Fisher, Ury & Patton at 61. Seeing things through another’s eyes often helps you understand their emotions and motivations. Asking questions focused on their “opinion”, or “why the idea they have expressed is important to them” are helpful tools in trying to perceive another’s viewpoint.
Even though a collaborative case happens in an organized environment, under a pre-determined set of rules, parties may still maintain feelings of bitterness, defensiveness, anger, hurt, and a sense of “right” which crop up and are an impediment to resolution. A collaborative attorney is trained to acknowledge these emotions and to ask questions to find out what is motivating the emotions. Understanding the “why” of the emotion is often a door-opener for finding common ground, as the other party often has the same feelings.
Communication in the collaborative law environment, despite the training of the attorneys and despite the agreement of the parties to be civil in the process, can still be a challenge. Collaborative lawyers tend to be good listeners who practice “active listening” – acknowledging what is being said by the other party, attorney or professional. To not only clarify what the person is saying, but to also show that you have really heard what they have said, positively respond by saying, “If I understand you correctly, you are saying ….” or “I want to make sure I understand what you’re saying. Are you saying….” This type of response will give the person reassurance that they are being heard, that you care about what they are saying, and that you understand their viewpoint. “Good listening can increase your negotiation power by increasing the information you have about the other side’s interests or about possible options. Once you understand the other side’s feelings and concerns, you can begin to address them, to explore areas of agreement and disagreement, and to develop useful ways to proceed in the future.” Fisher, Ury & Patton at 267.
Whether you are a client, a collaborative attorney, or a professional involved in the process, “People” aren’t really the problem, it’s our inability to understand people and their problems. However, practicing with the tools above in understanding the perceptions and emotions of others and using active listening techniques, we can achieve better results for all parties and clients who are more satisfied with the outcome of their family law matter.