Thomas Ferreira here for this installment of my five secrets to successful divorce negotiation. Today I want to talk about dropping the “A” bomb. The “A” stands for “attribution.” Dropping an attribution can produce a 5 megaton explosion guaranteed to blow up your negotiations.

How many of you have been trying to influence someone, and had that person make some throw-away comment that leaves you feeling like you were kicked in the stomach? It’s likely a belief they have about your character, a belief that challenges how you see yourself. Here are some typical A-bombs: “…that’s because you have to control everything,” or “my goodness, you’re such a bully.” Comments like “you are always so irresponsible with money” may contain a grain of truth, and that’s why they hurt so much. No one likes to see themselves as irresponsible.

Three Levels of Communication:

When I mediate negotiations, I’m on the lookout for 3 levels of conversation.

The surface level is the factual conversation, or the “what happened” conversation. Consider these frequent assertions that frequently occur in divorce negotiations:

a. The family home is worth $350,000.

b. You were arrested for drunk driving last year.

c.Seventy percent of the 401k is community property.

The next level of depth is the “how do I feel about that” conversation:

a. When I think about selling our home, it hurts to think of all the times we had there.

b. I feel ashamed that I drove the car after drinking, but I’m proud of the things I’ve done to atone for that mistake.

c. I’m afraid I won’t have the money to retire when I’m 65, and I’ll be out on the street begging for quarters.

The deepest level, and the one that holds the most power, is the character conversation:

a. Family is more important to me than it is to you.

b. When I make a mistake, I face it like a man.

c. I am a prudent saver, not willing to rely on others or the government for a handout.

The character conversation involves how we see ourselves. It is the foundation of our self-esteem, and when others attack us there, we defend ourselves like we’re fighting for our lives. That’s because we are, in a sense, fighting for our lives. After all, if I believe that I’m irresponsible, or that I’m a lousy parent, or that I never do anything good for the kids, those beliefs will drain me of drive to take responsibility, to take selfless actions, or to build a relationship with the kids.

My advice is to consider carefully the power of statements begin with the words, “That’s just like you…”, or “There you go again…” or “you always…” or “you never…”. What follows these attribution phrases are fighting words, words that attack a person’s foundation of how they see themselves. By contrast, when an attribution is aimed at you, stop for a second before becoming defensive. Adopt a curiosity stance and ask them for more details about their proposed solution. Steer the conversation back to business and away from the personal.

Here’s another technique for the seriously advanced negotiator. Try a positive attribution, something like “I really appreciate how you’re stepping up to the plate.” Affirming another person’s positive beliefs about themselves can disarm an otherwise angry and bitter foe, and turn them into a co-problem-solver.

Remember that making that other person your ally instead of your enemy can save you huge litigation dollars, and avoid the most painful and destructive part of divorce: going to court. In showing some kindness to your soon-to-be-ex, you’ll be on your way to …

Love your family,

Protect your finances, and

Reach for your future!

Thomas D. Ferreira, Esq.

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