How To Be Powerfully Persuasive In Your Divorce

How To Be Powerfully Persuasive In Your Divorce

When sensitive issues trigger them, people largely make decisions based on emotions, not logic. The problem: emotional decisions can derail your careful divorce strategies. The solution: connect with the emotional side of your brain to address out-of-control feelings before you react. That can be challenging, so I’ve outlined some strategies you can use to park (or process) your emotional reactions before engaging with your opponent, so when you respond, you can do it in a productive way. Putting these strategies into practice will increase the chances of settlement even in high-conflict divorces.

When your ex does something that upsets you, it’s easy to focus on the impact of her behavior and make negative assumptions about her intentions. When she drops the children off 20 minutes past the agreed-upon exchange time, you might assume that she is intentionally “gatekeeping” rather than being caught up in unexpected traffic. When the monthly maintenance payment is late, you might assume she is trying to ruin your finances, rather than hustling to make the child payments by “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Those negative assumptions about the other person’s intentions can be highly destructive and counterproductive. I understood this (in theory), but I did not fully realize how easy it is to fall into this trap until I experienced it myself.

One day after a court conference that went my client’s way, the opposing attorney asked me to have an impromptu settlement meeting with her and her client in one of the court’s conference rooms. When we started the meeting, I assumed we were going to discuss a logical resolution of the matter, since we seemed close on a settlement—at least in theory. But the opposing spouse was not ready to think logically. He needed to express himself emotionally. So out of nowhere, he started verbally attacking me, threatening to report me to the disciplinary committee for the way I was negotiating. Although I knew I did not do anything wrong, I was immediately put on the defensive—and I did not handle it well. Instead of parking my emotional reactions and focusing on why the spouse was really attacking me, I went on the attack myself. Like so many of my clients, I just could not see past my own emotional triggers and the story I created about why this man would react in such anger. I jumped to the inner position that he was an enemy, a bad man, not just a man who was upset.

It didn’t have to be that way—I had options that could’ve given me perspective and clarity. After he was through yelling and threatening, I could have taken a break to process my feelings so I could regain my composure. And while processing, I could have thought through why he was angry, from his perspective. Had I done this, I could’ve seen that he was angry about being in court and felt powerless to change the child support amount we’d asked for based on his high income. That sense of powerlessness was really uncomfortable for him since he had a need for control, which he was losing. He did not want to accept the reality of the situation and pay what he considered an unnecessarily high child support and maintenance amount—even though his current attorney (and the one before that) and I had already agreed in principle it was fair.

His new attorney had asked for the meeting to let him let off steam (at my expense!). If I had realized that, and if I’d been able to keep from being engulfed by my reactions, I would have been much better equipped to sidestep the attack and neutralize the tense situation. Instead, I sought to defend myself, which forced him to double down on his own attacks. I was not in a position to be persuasive because I was triggered too. That made the settlement meeting unproductive and increased the chances of a trial where we would all lose our minds. Fortunately, the case did settle for the numbers we discussed at that meeting, but not until we went back to court, which increased the budget. I learned the hard way how much reactiveness costs everyone.

The lesson for you: When emotions run hot, step away. Process in private, and keep returning your focus to what’s really behind any negative behavior coming your way. If you’ve been triggered, don’t engage at all, except to say you need a break. Let the emotional wave break and lose its power before doing or saying anything.

The top two ways to lose in high-emotion situations

If you ignore or misunderstand the emotional layer of your divorce, you’ll probably wind up clinging to two strategies that are guaranteed to fail:

  1. Using facts. It seems to make sense to use facts to try to persuade your spouse to do the right thing in the divorce and be reasonable. But it doesn’t work like that. Facts speak to the logical part of your brain. And the logical side of the brain is not what needs to be persuaded in a high-conflict divorce. What needs to be persuaded is the emotional part of the brain, which drives behavior.
  2. Using scare tactics. When facts fail, we often try to induce anxiety in the other party with insults, threats and yelling. That is almost certain to trigger them, and you, and make you both dig in. If you don’t manage your emotions when you’re very scared or angry, you only leave yourself three options: to fight (which may mean digging in for long, expensive litigation), to flee (which usually means settling on a fire sale), or to do nothing (which usually means not properly preparing for court or trial and letting the chips fall as they may).

Any of those choices will likely have negative long-term consequences in your divorce and post-divorce life.

So, if facts and scare tactics don’t work when emotions run high, what does?

A three-step process to become more powerfully persuasive

Step 1. Offer emotional support. The battles you’re having may look like they’re about many things, but most of them come down to both sides wanting to feel respected and understood. If you get this and try to look at things from your opposing spouse’s point of view, you’ll be able to fulfill the desire for respect and understanding that’s driving so much of their behavior.

That’s why the first step to becoming more powerfully persuasive is to give the other person emotional support. When I tell my clients to do this, they think I‘m crazy. “Why would I give my spouse anything?!” they tell me. “He/she is driving me crazy. I have to spend so much money and waste so much time because of them, why would I want to give them any emotional support? They should be giving the emotional support to me. But of course, they’re incapable of doing that because they’re so (narcissistic, selfish, bull-headed, emotionally tone-deaf).”

I nod my head and listen patiently because I have heard this response from clients many times over. But as I work with them, they realize that the best way to decrease their divorce budget (time, energy, money, emotion) is to try and give the other side what they want so they will give you what you want.

To be clear, when I say give your spouse want he wants, I do not mean giving him his stated position. For example, if your opposing spouse wants to pay $1,000 a month in child support and your lawyer advises you that the law would support his paying you $3,000, I am not suggesting that you agree to his $1,000 offer. But an effective way to get him to move his position before trial is to show him respect and understanding from his point of view. For example, you might sense that maybe he wants to pay only $1,000 in child support because he feels financially strained or angry about having no control over this child support amount is spent. If you understand where he is coming from, you have a better idea how to influence him.

How would you express this understanding? I’d suggest starting in places where there is already goodwill. For example, if your ex is paying your child support at a high level, you can show her what you are doing with the money by sharing photos and stories to make her feel included and respected. Don’t expect any response. Just know that you are building goodwill. In the tense moments before or after court, you can also say something simple like, “This a challenging time for us, and feeling financially strained isn’t good for our family.” That may be all you can say then. But you are de-escalating, and changing perceptions.  Depending on the level of conflict and ill will, making progress can take time. Know that you’re moving in the right direction.

When my clients understand the concept of offering emotional support, they get better at parking (and processing later) their emotional reactions, and it’s easier for them to begin looking at the other person’s stated positions as information they can use to understand what is really important to their spouse. As they do that, they have a much easier time staying composed during the litigation, which gives them a fair shot at a fair trial. They’re far less likely to sabotage themselves through triggered behaviors that cause the court to view them negatively.

Step 2. Obtain agreements incrementally on uncontested issues

Most of my clients have never been in litigation or a high-stakes negotiation. If they had, they would better appreciate how slow litigation really is and how little time the court has to help them in their case. They’d also understand that negotiation is a dance and that certain steps lead to harmony and other steps lead to roadblocks.

The best approach in this process is to start small. Instead of using all of your energy (in futility) working to resolve the contested issues between you and your opposing spouse, such as what amount of maintenance is appropriate, it is best to think of starting the persuasion process incrementally, by focusing your energy on uncontested issues and getting your spouse to make agreements (or micro agreements) on these issues. Why do you need to have an agreement for issues that are uncontested? Because the more you can agree on issues together, the better the foundation you have for working on resolving the more contested issues together. You’re incrementally changing the dynamic between you, and tipping it toward cooperation.

You are also narrowing the issues for the court (or other decision-makers) to resolve, which saves your budget. When you seem to be at an impasse, think of flipping the script to give the other side what they want (which is not their stated position) so they will give you what you want (which is also not your stated position). Start asking: How can I offer understanding and respect? Because both of those are effective, in your control, and free.

Step 3. Ask powerful questions.   

The last piece of the puzzle is giving the other side the power and control to resolve “your” problem in the best way possible. You’ve given them the understanding and respect they want, and now they are more ready, hopefully, to give you what you want. Even if what they offer falls short, at least they will be rethinking their tactics and be more receptive to settlement.

So how do you move them toward what you want? The best way is not to demand but to ask an open-ended question that is framed in a neutral way, so there will be no defensiveness on their part.

For example, in a child support situation where your spouse does not want to pay the amount of money required by the law, it’s better not to hammer them with statements like:  ”Don’t try to get out of it. The law says that’s what you have to pay, and you’re going to jail if you don’t.” Yes, those are the facts. But facts, remember, aren’t persuasive. You’ll only escalate matters, and make your opposing spouse feel triggered. It’s far more effective to ask: “How can you comply with the child support law while also maintaining your lifestyle?“ This is a powerful question because gives them the illusion of power over their circumstances and a feeling of respect, which is what you need if you are going to sidestep a war and maintain your divorce budget and your sanity.

REVIEW: How to defuse emotions and get what you want

  1. Give emotional support from their point of view.
  2. If you are triggered, park or process your own emotions first.
  3. Obtain agreements (or micro-agreements) on uncontested issues incrementally to build momentum.
  4. Ask open-ended questions that give the other side the illusion of power and control in having them solve your problems.

Doing this does not guarantee that you’ll be able to resolve your high conflict divorce without the need for trial, but it will decrease your budget and help you keep from losing your mind.


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