Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Starting with the Small Stuff

There's an old saying that has application to negotiations as well as other life issues. "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time." In other words, don't try to take on the whole task all at once. Take it a step at a time.

Seth Godin recently had a post on his blog that got me thinking about negotiations. His point was that people shouldn't start with fighting the impossible battles first. You should start with smaller battles and have some wins before moving up to the more difficult fights.

In many contexts, we are often admonished to "don't sweat the small stuff". That's usually good advice, but in negotiations, it sometimes works out better to start with the small stuff instead of the overriding issue that will eventually have to be resolved.

I have had many clients who insisted on starting on the biggest, most difficult overriding issue in negotiations to test the willingness of the other side to "be reasonable/realistic/fair", etc. These clients didn't really expect to reach agreements, whether the case was in mediation, Collaborative Law or just plain negotiations between the parties or attorneys. They say they don't want to waste time negotiating if they the other side isn't committed to doing the right thing.

Such an approach ignores the need to build a road to reach the goal they want. The road requires a foundation and planning. Roads are usually built in small sections, rather than building the whole road all at once.
Negotiations in family law cases also require a foundation and planning, working a section at a time.

In a custody case, the parties may be able to come to agreements on how to share the powers, rights and duties of parents, even where they can't immediately agree on who should have "primary custody". (Part of the underlying problem may be the use of certain labels that make one parent appear to be inferior to the other, but that's a topic for another post.) If the parents will spend some time reaching agreement on the sub issues, such as the parental decision-making powers, how they share time with the kids and sharing involvement with extracurricular activities, for examples, they may not have such a big issue remaining.

When the parties have to negotiate property division terms, there will always be some assets that are pretty easy to divide, and that can make a good starting point. Beginning with some simple decisions can help build momentum that can lead to more progress on the bigger items. Working on furniture and personal property, or the IRAs that are in each party's name, can be a low-conflict point where they can readily agree. As the smaller items are eliminated, sometimes it becomes easier to resolve the other issues because the end is in sight.

Similarly, when dealing with taxes, retirement, debts, investments or many other issues, it makes sense to start with the small, easy-to-agree-to terms. Momentum develops and sometimes a little good will is created when each side sees the other side sacrificing or at least being reasonable.

When you are starting to negotiate a settlement in a family law case, your chances for success will be enhanced if you plan ahead and start work on some smaller issues so that your successes will build momentum to help with the bigger issues.

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