How to successfully negotiate a separation when your partner is a bully – Boutet in Huffington Post

Observing President Trump’s display of bully-style negotiation and intimidation tactics, false information and confrontational approach to advance his agenda gave me pause to reflect on how to effectively handle difficult personalities in family law negotiations.

There are generally two broad categories of negotiation: distributive (or positional) negotiation and integrative (or interest-based). In distributive negotiation, people focus on what they want, formulate a position and try to get it without regard for the concerns of the other party. Bullying falls under this category.

With integrative negotiation, individuals share information about what is important to each of them, which allows them to make concessions on issues that are important to the other party, with the goal of “expanding the pie” for both. Collaborative Law falls under this category.

Serious research[1] demonstrates that using integrative negotiation yields the best outcome for both parties, whereas distributive negotiation creates a higher risk of impasse and worse outcome.

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. Using one of these three strategies, which are anchored in neuroscience and integrative negotiation, will help separating couples increase the likelihood of a successful negotiation.

Be prepared: engage your brain, not emotions

It’s often easy to become flustered and lose concentration around intimidating and forceful personalities, and this makes us more vulnerable to irrational compromising. The brain’s limbic system is mainly responsible for emotional reactions, which is designed to protect us from danger.

When we perceive a threat to our physical survival, our body generates automatic reactions such as sending blood to our muscles and oxygen to our lungs. This allows us to be stronger and faster in case we need to run to save our lives. This is known as the fight or flight response. These reactions also happen when we are confronted by emotional threats, such as fear of losing or fear of being dominated.

While this is useful when there is a genuine threat to our safety or survival, it isn’t when we are attempting to solve a problem as our ability to think and reason becomes diminished. Under fight or flight, our body releases adrenaline and cortisol which are known to inhibit the activities of the pre-frontal cortex. The pre-frontal cortex is responsible for reasoning, thinking and problem solving.

This makes sense from a species’ survival point of view. If we encounter a dangerous person on an isolated street, we want our fight and flight responses to activate quickly so we can run and save our lives. Only when we are no longer in danger do we want our thinking process to return to normal.

Learning to become less susceptible to being emotionally triggered, especially by a bully, is possible – and incredibly powerful. You can prepare yourself by using the following essential steps:

  • Define 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.A powerful intention is to be the wise, confident person in the room. Your deep internal preparation to support this intention will be your commitment to yourself not to get sucked in by the anticipated types of shenanigans you imagine the other person will throw at you.When a bully tries to take you off your game, you will be better equipped to resist getting derailed. And more likely than not, the other person will get flustered when you remain calm.
  • Know your and their facts – Bullies may exaggerate, make up information or twist reality. These techniques are meant to upset and destabilize others. Being acutely aware of the facts surrounding the issues being discussed, your strengths and weaknesses, and also the strengths and weaknesses of the other side, will make you more confident and less likely to feel threatened during the meeting.

Don’t confront a bully, promote empathy

Most people, including bullies, can easily become angry when confronted and attacked. But responding to a bully’s barrage of insults in kind will get you nowhere. This will only put both of you in a fight-or-flight situation where your pre-frontal cortexes, the center of intelligence and decision making, will not be fully engaged. This is what leads to negotiation failure where nobody gets what they want.

Aptly put by Harvard Professor Wood Brooks: “Bringing anger to a negotiation is like throwing a bomb into the process.”[2]

Lack and Bogacz[3] explain that human beings are highly social creatures and are intuitively drawn to people and situations that make us feel connected or part of a group. When we feel connected with someone, there is a release of oxytocin in our body, a hormone which helps to promote empathy, trust and collaboration.

  • Welcoming and pleasant introductions:

Common social patterns can encourage a positive attitude shift towards problem solving and collaboration during negotiations. This may include common techniques as simple as welcoming and pleasant introduction. Mediators often break the ice with personal stories and serve drinks and food at meetings for this very reason.

  • Use words that bring people together

The words we use can have a similar effect. Legal dialogue is often filled with war-like expressions such as “the opponent” or “the other side”. These expressions may unconsciously trigger innate negative responses, whereas using neutral words such as “negotiation partners” can sub-consciously trigger cooperative ways of thinking.

It’s also strategically helpful to find compromises on small issues first and taking the lead on demonstrating reasonableness. This may encourage trust and pave the way for more collaboration by the time bigger issues need to be tackled. Be mindful of how you present your compromise. To avoid triggering the other person, show willingness to agree with the other side first, and then weave in your counter-ask. For example, say: “I will pay the support you want if I can have the cottage,” rather than “First you need to agree to give me the cottage before I will pay you the support you want.”

Know when to walk away or to bring additional help

No matter how skilled we are, it is not always possible to reach an agreement. Negotiations tend to fail when we operate from the primitive, or reptilian, brain. At this stage, people have a greater need not only to survive, but to defeat the other. No resolution can happen from this place.

In these situations, it becomes challenging to de-escalate conflict and get back to a place of higher intellectual functioning. In this case, it’s best to:

  • Take time away from the conflict – Taking time away will allow adrenaline and cortisol to dissipate and allow you to process information from a higher cognitive-thinking place. Bring in 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 fuel our natural inclination to foster empathy and cooperation.
  • Walk away – If you have thoroughly prepared and have fully discovered the facts of the case, you can understand the consequences of making a bad deal vs walking away. In certain cases, it is acceptable or even necessary to walk away from bullying tactics.

Anyone, including President Trump, can use shaming and intimidations when attempting to get their way. Handling the conversation with thoughtfulness, maturity and composure will not only set you aside. It can help you achieve success in your negotiation.


You can also read this article on Huffington Post.


[1] De Dreu,Weingart, and Kwon: Influence of social motives on integrative negotiation: A meta-analytic review and test of two theories. J. of Personality and Social Psych., Vol. 78, No. 5, p. 889 (2000).

[2] Wood Brooks, A.: Emotion and the art of negotiation. Harvard Business Review, December 2015.

[3] Leathes, M.: Negotiation: Things Corporate Counsel Need To Know, But Were Not Taught, Chapter 3: Neuroscience – written by Lack, J., and Bogacz, F.

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