Author Note: The author of this blog is not an attorney and the information contained in this article should not be considered legal advice.  The information provided here is based on the experience of the author and some of her clients whose actual names are not mentioned.  Do not hesitate to seek the advice of an attorney if you have any legal questions for your specific situation.

Once the decision to divorce has been made, sooner or later you and your spouse will need to come to an agreement on various issues. This is true no matter what method of divorce you use (litigated, mediation, collaborative divorce, etc.). You may wish that someone else (like your lawyer) would do all the negotiations for you. But in reality, it is you and your spouse who will eventually have to work out solutions to at least some issues, during the divorce and often after. Learning good negotiation skills can help you succeed in conflict resolution and will likely result in a more amicable divorce settlement.

Your actions during three phases of the negotiation process can have a profound effect on the outcome. Here are some tips for what you can do before, during and after negotiations.

Before the meeting

  1. Define your goals. Try to make mutual agreement one of those goals. Aim for a win-win solution.
  2. Identify the problems from both of your perspectives. It may be helpful to work with a marriage counselor to clarify the issues that cause conflict and to help each of you see the other’s viewpoint.
  3. Make a list of what is most important to you. Knowing what you really want will aid you in negotiating strategically. Allow at least several days to think about this and add items to your list as they come up.
  4. Prepare a list of items you would be willing to compromise on. What could you give up in order to get something from your “most important” list?
  5. De-stress just prior to meeting. Try to do something that will help you relax so you can enter the meeting in a calm state. Listen to peaceful music, meditate, do some breathing exercises, or take a walk.

During the meeting

  1. Meet on neutral ground. Plan to meet in a place that is free of memories and emotions. Don’t meet at your home(s) or at any place you used to hang out together. Find some place that will be private. If you would like to have a neutral third party present, you could ask a member of the clergy, or a counselor to be there with you.
  2. Choose to have a good attitude. Try to be as pleasant as possible, leaving negative emotions out of the negotiating room as much as possible. Keep your goals in mind and expect to have a good outcome. This can help you focus on the positive. When you feel anger starting to well up inside you, take a long, deep breath and remember that getting angry will only make the situation worse.
  3. Set the ground rules. Both of you need to agree to be civil to each other, and to leave the reasons for the divorce out of the negotiations. This is not the time to discuss the problems in the marriage; your goal is to make decisions about the future. Agree to avoid the following
  • Making demands or ultimatums
  • Showing disrespect
  • Using threatening language
  • Yelling
  • Blaming
  • Storming out of the room

Keep to the ground rules even if your spouse does not. Do not stoke the fire. If you reach an impasse where you do not seem to be getting anywhere, or if one of you is starting to ignore the ground rules or is becoming angry, stop negotiating and come back to the issue later. If things are really getting out of hand, you should discontinue the meeting. You can reschedule it later.

  1. Set up a structure for the meeting. Decide the order of the issues to be discussed. Take one issue at a time and set a time limit. If the two of you are able to come to an agreement then document it, sign it, and move on to the next issue. If instead you haven’t come to agreement on that issue when the time limit is up, agree to return to it at a later time and move on to the next issue. Don’t be discouraged if you can’t resolve everything in one meeting – this is normal.
  2. Really listen. Allow your spouse to speak without interruption. Don’t get defensive or start planning your response. Really pay attention to their concerns. When they are finished, restate what they have said to make sure you understand. You will get your chance to speak, but not during your spouse’s turn.
  3. Be willing to compromise. Recognize that you won’t get everything you want out of the negotiations.
  4. Brainstorm together. Find possibilities and agree to calmly evaluate them. Then choose a solution that both of you can feel comfortable with.
  5. Write it down. Get really clear on the details. For example, if you have decided that the children will live with one parent two weekends a month, be specific about when and where they will be picked up and by whom. Record all the details

After the meeting

  1. Take some time to review the agreement. Both of you should take a few days to independently review the decisions before putting them into official divorce papers. You want to be sure that each of you feels the terms are fair and clear.
  2. Ask for help if not all issues could be agreed on. A good place to start is with a Divorce with Dignity specialist, who can help you clarify the issues and determine if a mediator can be of assistance.
  3. Keep your promises. Once you have come to an agreement on an issue and both of you have signed off on it, stick to the plan. If something is not working well, you can always renegotiate. But if you haven’t kept your part of the bargain, your spouse may not trust you enough to go through the process again.

The keys to a successful negotiation process are to communicate clearly, remain positive, and listen to the other side. If you can accomplish these things, your spouse will be more willing to work with you to achieve a mutually acceptable settlement, making the whole divorce process go a little more smoothly.

Cindy Elwell is CEO/Founder of Divorce With Dignity, where people interested in amicably resolving their divorce can come for guidance and resources to do so.