Tips for Successful Divorce Negotiations

Part of what you will be doing as you use the Negotiated Divorce system is negotiating an agreement with your spouse.  Negotiation is difficult under the best of circumstances, but in the context of a divorce where emotions run high, it can seem impossible.  The Negotiated Divorce system provides you with extensive written and video instruction about how to work toward an acceptable resolution with your spouse. The following guidelines can improve your chances of successful negotiation beginning right now.

Wait to negotiate about any issue until both parties confirm that they feel they have all the information they need to make informed choices about that issue.

Jumping the gun and trying to negotiate before information-gathering is complete is counter-productive.  Imagine that I offer to sell you my watch.  The price is $5,000.  I tell you that it’s a great deal, that you won’t do any better than what I’m offering, and that you’ll regret it if you don’t take it now – this offer is only good until 5 p.m. today.  Oh – and you have to decide with only the information you already have about it.  I can’t wait for you to gather any more information.

Can you do it?  Probably not, unless you’ve secretly had your eye on my watch for some time, know it’s in good working order, and have researched the issue thoroughly to know what you would have to pay for it if you bought it elsewhere.  You don’t have enough information to evaluate my offer, so you can’t accept it.

The same is true for negotiations in divorce.  I can make you the greatest settlement proposal in the world, but if you don’t have the necessary information to confirm my claims and underlying assumptions, you have to turn me down.  You’re suspicious of me because I’m trying to force you to decide right now, with no additional information; my feelings are hurt because you don’t trust me and you’ve turned your nose up at my great offer.  Chances are good that when you do get the information you need and you want to accept my offer, I’ll no longer be willing to complete the transaction, which may well have been a really great deal for you.  Or you’ll see my great offer as an opening bid and try to talk me off the price, which will offend me.  Waiting until information-gathering is complete on any given topic is the best way to proceed.

Do not surprise your spouse by trying to talk settlement when he or she is not prepared for it. 

You may have the world’s greatest idea, but if you try to pitch it to someone when they’re trying to wash the dog, or cook dinner, or work, it will probably not be well received. Make an appointment with your spouse to talk about specific issues for a limited amount of time.  Divide the process into small, discreet tasks.

Settle all issues at one time.  

Many couples who try directly negotiating their divorce settlements fall into the trap of making piecemeal settlements.  They will make what they think is a stand-alone agreement that meets some of their overall goals.  The problem with this strategy is that there will come a time when one spouse has satisfied all of his or her goals.  This person then has no incentive to continue to help the other person meet his or her remaining goals.  This often leads to an unraveling of the deal, leaving parties worse off than when they started, because now someone feels they have been betrayed or tricked.  The better practice is to make tentative agreements – “Assuming we can work everything else out to our mutual satisfaction, then we agree that we will divide our financial accounts as follows.”

Use Structured Settlement Discussions

Settlements negotiated directly between spouses will work best if they follow these guidelines:

  • Make an appointment with your spouse to negotiate for a limited amount of time.
  • Meet at a place that feels neutral to both parties, and where you’re unlikely to be interrupted by your children (or anyone else you might know).
  • Identify in advance one or two topics that will be discussed, then stick to those topics.
  • Agree that if anyone feels uncomfortable (for any reason or no reason) the discussions will stop with no questions asked.
  • If you make an agreement, write it down in simple terms that both parties feel clearly outlines their deal.
  • If you don’t feel comfortable making an agreement on the spot, consider making a commitment about when you will be able to make a decision.

So, the conversation inviting your spouse to a negotiation session would go something like this:

HUSBAND:   Will you meet me at Starbuck’s for an hour on Tuesday to talk about how we’re going to divide up the Christmas decorations?

WIFE: That sounds like a good idea.  Can we also address the children’s summer camp at the same meeting?

HUSBAND: Sure.  How about 2:00.  We’ll be done before 3:00 so I can pick up the kids at school.

WIFE: Perfect!

If it’s an uncontested divorce, don’t play the Ultimatum Game

Although the situation between economically distressed Greece and its European lenders changes daily, as they approached one deadline, European leaders gave Greece an ultimatum: Agree to an extension of the bailout program or lose the funding Greece needs to avoid default and exclusion from the Eurozone. They made a vague promise to renegotiate the original terms of the austerity program at a later date, but it was essentially a take it or leave it offer. Rather than acquiesce, the Greek finance minister reacted angrily: “…nothing good has ever come out of ultimatums. I have no doubt that in the next few days any notion of an ultimatum will be withdrawn.”  The new Greek government maintains that the austerity demanded of its people in exchange for the original bailout devastated the Greek economy and imposed untold social damage. It argues that if the European Union wants a chance of recovering its loans to Greece, it must loosen the austerity terms so that the economy can grow again.

But why would Greece reject the European lenders’ commitment to distribute billions of dollars of desperately needed funds when the alternative is bank runs, bankruptcy, exclusion from the Eurozone, and possible social chaos? At first glance, the Greek response doesn’t seem rational: the proposal provides needed breathing room and a commitment by the European lenders to ease the austerity terms in future negotiations. While the reasons for the Greek reaction are politically and economically complex, the simple explanation is that the Greek government views the European lenders’ proposal as unfair.

So what does this have to do with lawyers negotiating a divorce or couples pursuing an uncontested divorce online? It’s the issue of fairness, or at least what the parties perceive as fair, and how it can propel or stall a negotiation.

Using an experimental procedure called the Ultimatum Game, social scientists have demonstrated that people’s perception of unfairness will lead them to turn down a sure gain. Here’s how it works: the subject must decide whether to accept or reject an offer for a portion of a fixed amount, say $100, which is to be split between the subject and the offeror. The offeror decides how the money is to be split, but if the subject rejects the offer, neither receives any money. There is no second round, that’s the ultimatum: take it or leave it. The offeror might propose a fair split (e.g., $50 each), or an unfair one (e.g. $95 for the offeror, $5 to the subject). In either case, the subject receives more than he or she had at the beginning of the exercise. $5 is better than $0. Right?

Actually, no. The results of these experiments show that even though getting a small amount is better than getting nothing, the rejection rate for offers perceived as unfair (generally 30% or less of the total amount being distributed) is very high.

Why? Because humans value more than an economic return. Civil conduct, following social norms, and reaching a social agreement is important to a society’s and an individual’s well-being.  From that perspective, turning down an unfair economic offer is not irrational at all; it is saying that there are other interests at work which the offeror must also take into account.

The Ultimatum Game being played by European lenders and Greece on the international stage rather than in a social scientists’ laboratory provides a lesson for divorcing spouses: In instances when there is no Plan B or rejection of a take-it-or-leave-it offer will lead to dire circumstances (e.g., litigation), an offer that leaves your spouse better off but is perceived by him or her as unfair is likely to be rejected, even when considerable cost attends the resulting outcome. If you plan to make an offer, anticipate what he or she is likely to perceive as fair and be prepared to explain why your offer is, indeed, fair. And if it’s not, change it.

Divorcing Couples Log Roll Their Way to Agreements

When divorcing couples use an online divorce service to manage their divorce without the help of lawyers, they sometimes ask: “We’ve got some tough issues to settle, but we don’t want to make it worse by bringing in lawyers to argue. How do we get started?” It’s an excellent question—and fortunately, there are some good precedents from everyday life that divorcing couples can follow: Athletic coaches conduct warm-up drills, parents encourage baby steps, teachers start with the basics, and negotiators log roll.

In other words, start small, build momentum.

To understand the concept of logrolling, consider this example from international diplomacy. When disputing countries begin talks aimed at reducing tensions, they often start with agreements that are simple and low risk, such as arranging for their artists to work together or for their medical professionals to train one another in specialized services—relatively low-risk exchanges requiring minor, non-threatening concessions. By doing so, they get the log rolling; that is, building positive momentum before tackling the tough issues to come.

These experienced diplomats understand that an effective way to build the conditions necessary to resolve complicated issues is, to begin with, less important ones that will yield easily to compromise. Doing so injects optimism into the negotiation, sets precedents for future compromises, and builds trust.

So how can couples who are using an online divorce service logroll their way to settling disagreements?

Consider the problems of deciding how custody of the children will be divided over the summer break or how responsibility for paying off credit card debt will be shared, even in uncontested divorces. Such issues can be difficult to resolve when a divorcing couple feels strongly about what’s at stake and anticipates having to wring tough concessions from one another to get what each wants. To build positive momentum, it helps couples in this situation to settle less complicated issues before tackling the tough ones. For example, a divorcing couple with young children might first decide who will bring drinks to the next soccer game, agree upon a good time to have the next parent-teacher conference, and arrange for one parent to take the children to the next dentist appointment. A couple with difficult financial issues to resolve might start with less complicated ones, such as setting a date for a garage sale or dividing up the kitchen utensils. Making several such mutual concessions at the start, no matter how simple or risk-free, gets the log rolling: fostering optimism and a spirit of compromise that will carry over to the tougher discussions yet to come.

Getting a Divorce? Don’t Let the Tail Wag the Dog

Almost any family law attorney can describe a case wherein a couple spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle issues of asset division, alimony, child support, and custody. In other less costly instances, the money spent still far outstripped the value of the issues at stake. In one case, a father wanted to set his child support obligation $200 per month lower than the state guideline. When the mother balked and mediation did not resolve the matter, the father took it to litigation. The Judge subsequently ruled in the father’s favor, saving the father approximately $16,000 between then and when their child turned 18. Their legal fees, however, totaled $65,000. Not a financially smart way for either parent to resolve this impasse.

Not every divorce costs $65,000 to settle one matter, but it is not uncommon for everyday couples with modest financial estates to pony up $15,000 to $20,000 in lawyers’ fees to settle what could have been an uncontested divorce. Can couples reach agreements and get divorced without draining their accounts? In a word, yes. But it takes common sense, a commitment to fair-minded agreements, and a willingness to set aside emotional payback as the goal.

First, divorcing couples must remember not to let the tail wag the dog. They, not the lawyers, decide how the divorce will proceed: contentiously (with the associated legal expense) or civilly (which leaves little for a lawyer to do but fill in the documents). In fact, couples who are the most committed to saving money and time, settle their divorce without any lawyers at all by using an online divorce service that provides the information and guidance they need to reach fair agreements and complete the necessary documents—at a reasonable cost.

Whether a couple uses lawyers or does their divorce on their own, here are five frequent mistakes that can drive up the cost.

  1. Being dishonest about financial matters, including withholding information. When one spouse learns that the other is not providing complete, accurate financial information, mistrust poisons every subsequent discussion. Lawyers have solutions when this occurs: depositions, discovery, and testimony. These tactics are effective, but expensive, time consuming, and intrusive. Don’t kid yourself: Hiding or misrepresenting assets is likely to cost you more in the long run than being transparent from the outset.
  2. Using lawyers to settle inconsequential issues. It’s important that couples avoid heedless concessions just to get divorced. But do you really want lawyers, at their hourly rate, to go back and forth about who will take the children to and from soccer practice or how the kitchen utensils will be divided? They didn’t go to law school to settle such trivial issues; and it’s not what you had in mind when you originally hired them.
  3. Being stubborn and inflexible. When emotions run hot, it’s easy to dig in one’s heels to make a point: “I won’t be pushed around.” But make sure your heels aren’t digging too deep a hole. Spending thousands of dollars in legal fees to make your spouse responsible for the cost of summer camp is not the best use of community assets.
  4. Seeking vengeance, rather than a legal settlement. Divorce is first and foremost, a legal process with a legal outcome. When couples decide to use that process for non-legal purposes, such as to get revenge or publicly humiliate the other, the divorce will get very messy and very expensive, very fast. Interestingly, research in this area has found that getting revenge feels very good for a very short period of time; then it doesn’t feel good at all.
  5.  Refusing to communicate in a civil manner. A divorce requires couples and their representatives to communicate: information exchanged, requests conveyed, proposals submitted, trade-offs suggested, offers accepted. This process becomes terribly difficult and inefficient when straightforward communication is replaced by argument and conflict. The goal of divorce is to reach a legal agreement, not to replay everything that went wrong in the marriage.

Fairness is not an “F-word”

Having Fair Standards: A Divorce Without Lawyers

When you divorce without lawyers, some divorce professionals (like mediators) tell divorcing spouses not to use the term ‘fair’ when discussing what they want in a divorce agreement: “Fair is an F-word. We don’t use it here. You’re not going to get fairness. You’re going to get a divorce.”

But many don’t agree with this philosophy, perceiving that it confuses the necessity of learning to accept life’s inevitable setbacks (“life isn’t fair”) with the equally important task of helping one another find meaning and value in life by offering fairness wherever it can be found. And it can be found—even in the midst of a difficult divorce.

Naturally, how you define fairness may be quite different from how I define it. What seems entirely fair to you may seem outrageously unjust to me. And therein lies the problem when negotiating: How do we reach a mutually acceptable definition of fairness that allows us to settle our differences? And fairly so?

Achieving that standard isn’t always easy but it is absolutely worth striving for—and not a goal that should be dismissed as naive and pointless. Like so many aspects to negotiating or mediating a divorce or a parenting plan, the answers lies in attending, separately, to the way you negotiate as well as to what has to be settled.

A fair way is a fair process: identifying each family member’s interests, respecting alternate points-of-view, providing a safe environment for creative brainstorming, avoiding personal attack and deceit, and not relying upon coercion and bullying to persuade agreement. In other words, a fair process means playing fair. It is about civility, courtesy and respect — the very values that parents want to teach their children.

And to determine what is fair, you can often turn to external standards and guidelines. Whenever possible, obtain the facts:

  • Unsure about the value of a family car? Check the Blue Book for an objective, neutral figure.
  • Not sure how to estimate the current equity in your home? Consider taking the average of two neutral appraisals as an agreed upon “fair value.” Or check the tax records for the appraised value.
  • Puzzled and worried about the best parenting time schedule for a preschooler? Consider what the psychological research and outside experts say about what young children of divorce really need.

Fairness: Playing fair; seeking fair standards.

Know Your Divorce Paradigm

Divorcing couples who want to settle their own divorce and to use an online divorce service to avoid excessive legal fees need “to know their paradigm.” What do we mean by that?

You’ve heard the terms “work mode” and “play mode.” Perhaps you’ve commented: “I’ve got my work hat on now” or “I put on my social face when we go to parties.” In other words, we match our behavior to the context to make the most of the experience. The same analogy holds true for different ways to solve a problem, such as agreeing upon the terms of a divorce. If we intend to rely upon an arbitrator, such as a judge, to make a decision for us, I best pull out my litigators’ tools. I will develop persuasive arguments for my position and against yours and approach the matter as a win-lose deal. I have no stake in the extent to which your interests are satisfied; I am only interested in meeting my own. But if we intend to negotiate a divorce without lawyers, I will employ my problem-solving tools. I will propose compromises and mutual concessions and suggest trade-offs that help both of us. Most importantly, I have a stake in your interests; if yours aren’t met, we don’t have a deal. And if we don’t have a deal, my interests won’t be met either.

Litigating and negotiating are different paradigms utilizing different tools to accomplish the same goal: to resolve an impasse. A litigator’s tools (e.g., staking out a position, arguing, threatening, withholding information) are designed to win a contest. It’s all about power: “I have a stronger position.” A negotiator’s tools (e.g., proposing compromises, mutual concessions, trade-offs, re-framing) are designed to solve a problem. It’s all about mutual benefit: “I have an idea that works for both of us.”

What happens to many couples who are trying to agree upon an uncontested divorce without lawyers, however, is that they forget the context in which they are trying to solve a problem. They use a litigator’s tools as though to win a contest rather than a negotiator’s tools to solve a problem. But without an arbitrator present, who will listen to opposing perspectives and decide? Not you or me, we’re too busy trying to score points. Does this help you understand why so many arguments end badly?

If we intend to solve a problem directly, we have to make a conscious decision to be negotiators and leave the tools of litigation behind: “I’m not here to argue or overpower you, I’m here to find solutions that work for both of us.” This means: I will listen rather than grandstand, offer mutual concessions rather than ultimatums, and suggest novel solutions instead of one-sided proposals.

Trust: Hard Won, Easily Lost

Trust is like water in a wellspring; it is either being replenished or depleted, built up or drawn down. And as water is to life, so trust is essential to the relatedness of all kinds: between friends, spouses, parents and children, humans and pets, businesses, and states. But in the midst of a divorce, the wellspring of trust may have run dry. And when couples want to pursue an uncontested divorce without lawyers, lack of trust can be the biggest barrier to an agreement.

So what is trust? A common definition is that trust is confidence that someone will do as they say they will do. In other words, trust is an expectation of reliability; it is about hope and it is about the future. It is built upon a series of experiences in which you and I do, indeed, reliably live up to our word. You share confidence; I keep it. I lend you my car; you return it with a full tank. Small steps build up reserves of trust and give us the confidence to take more risks and to make larger commitments.

But trust is easily broken – often times by just one betrayal. And when that happens, the one feeling betrayed may become suspicious, alert to further betrayal, and oversensitive to any perceived slights. Caution replaces risk taking; defensiveness replaces disclosure; self-protection replaces openness.

When suspicions grow to general distrust, people usually want to break off a relationship. But this isn’t always possible. Businesses have contractual financial ties, divorced parents have co-parenting responsibilities, conflicting countries have shared borders, divorcing spouses have to work together—to get divorced.

So when acrimony and suspicion rather than trust prevail, can trust be replenished? In a word, yes. But it is a long path, often marked by obstacles and setbacks. The irony is that trust can only be reestablished by risking again with the one who committed the original betrayal – the opposite of what one is inclined to do when feeling hurt and mistreated.

To build trust out of distrust, it is usually necessary to proceed in small steps – incremental risks and commitments that slowly replenish the wellspring until sufficient reserve sets the stage for larger commitments. But as filling a well with a single cup takes time, all trust drains quickly if one betrayal cracks the well.

There is, however, an exception to the slow process of replenishing trust. In some instances, an overarching crisis or event enables people in conflict to set aside their differences and abruptly reverse the erosion of trust. We experienced this as a nation in the months after 9/11. Communities pull together to handle local crises such as natural disasters or Amber Alerts. Families set aside personal animosities to manage a member’s critical illness. Such events heighten the awareness that we depend upon one another, that we need one another, that we are all better off collaborating with one another.

Never Involve Children in Adult Matters

Studies show that children of separation tend to grow up faster than kids from intact families. In addition to other challenges, they need to adapt to change, develop coping mechanisms, and they generally have more responsibilities.

Let children be children.

Allow them a healthy childhood. You can minimize the impact on your children through conscious co-parenting.

Children should not be put in the middle of adult issues. They should not serve as your outlet to voice your stress or frustration with your co-parent. They should not serve as your messenger to the other parent. They shouldn’t be bribed or coerced into taking sides for any reason. Further, you should never talk negatively about your co-parent in their presence, even if you think they aren’t listening. They are watching your every move – every gesture, subtle facial expression, and every eye roll.

Giving reassurance that the separation is not their fault will minimize their pain and help them to develop healthy coping mechanisms.

“Often the right path is the one that may be hardest for you to follow. But the hard path is also the one that will make you grow as a human being.” – Karen Mueller Coombs

Talk Through Issues and Initiate Peaceful Resolution

A damaged relationship is not irreversible when both parties sincerely put in the effort.

Co-parenting isn’t easy. As with any other relationship, you will have disagreements and misunderstandings.

It is important to discuss these issues as they occur and to do so in a civilized and amicable manner.

Put the Focus on the Kids

Set aside your personal feelings and focus solely on resolving the matter for the benefit of your kids.

Communicating and talking through issues as they arise will help reduce conflict, build your trust in each other, and help to establish mutual understanding.

There may be times when you need to walk away in order to gather your thoughts, but do not let unresolved issues build up over time.

Co-parenting requires a lot of ‘give and take’, so choose your battles wisely and always strive for compromise.

There will likely be times when you must ‘agree to disagree’, but as long as you have shared your side and considered your co-parent’s perspective, you will be able to move on in a healthy manner.

Remember, your children will benefit by having the diverse influence of both you and your co-parent equally involved in their lives.

“The quality of our lives depends not on whether or not we have conflicts, but on how we respond to them.” – Tom Crum.

Divorce Coaches in Texas

Preparing yourself for the process of divorce is rarely easy – no matter how many books you read or how often you listen to Dr. Phil. In addition to the legal matters, you may need help with managing your resentments and worries, working effectively with your ex, developing a parenting plan, and coming to terms with your new financial situation. These are the principle reasons divorcing spouses often turn first to lawyers to guide them – the process seems too fraught with emotional and practical landmines to manage on their own. But asking a lawyer to help every step of the way is expensive – particularly when paying a lawyer’s regular fee for advice in areas for which they are not trained, like what to tell the children or how to handle an angry text from your ex. This problem is even more acute for couples managing their own divorce without lawyers: Who do they turn to when they hit an impasse or are worried they are making bad agreements?

Whether you are using a lawyer or an online-service, one resource for any divorcing spouse facing such challenges is a divorce coach. Often charging less than half of an attorney’s regular fee and trained to provide a “flexible process to support, motivate and guide people through divorce based on their particular interests, needs and concerns” (American Bar Association), divorce coaches can be a cost-effective way for couples to get guidance and information to supplement their lawyer’s work or to manage their own divorce.

Who are divorce coaches?

Divorce coaches come from various professional backgrounds, including law, mental health, and finance. Consequently, divorcing spouses can choose a coach based on their specific needs. If couples are unsure about a parenting-time schedule for young children, for example, they might find that a mental health professional with a background in child and family psychology will be most helpful. When a couple has tricky financial matters to sort out, someone with a financial background would be appropriate.

Are divorce coaches certified or licensed?

Not really. There are organizations that provide training and certification to professionals who want to call themselves divorce coaches, but divorce coaches are not certified and licensed by the state like lawyers, psychologists, and financial planners. Consequently, just about anyone can say he or she offers divorce coaching. In fact, some divorce coaches’ only experience is their own divorce. The key is to find someone who is: 1. Licensed in a relevant area of professional practice (e.g., law, psychology, financial planning), 2. has expertise in the area for which you need help, and 3. has experience or training providing consultation and coaching in divorce-related matters.

What do divorce coaches cost?

Like many professionals, divorce coaches typically charge by the hour – although their fees are generally much lower than lawyers’ fees. In fact, many divorce coaches charge less than half of what lawyers’ typically charge. Of course, the more you use them, the more they cost.

What do divorce coaches do?

Divorce coaches don’t offer legal advice and they can’t represent you in court, but they can help you sort out ways to solve particular problems, point you towards needed information and resources, and provide tips and strategies to handle your emotions as well as those of family members. Do you need to kvetch about your soon-to-be-ex but don’t want to burden your friends or pay your lawyer’s hourly fee? A divorce coach might be just the right sounding board and a source of useful coping strategies. All thumbs when it comes to organizing your financial picture? Then a finance professional can help you collect your financial information, organize it into an efficient, easy-to-understand spreadsheet, and help you plan your post-divorce budget. In fact, many couples find that working with a divorce coach provides the tools and information they need to do most of the legwork on their own, saving legal fees as well time and emotional resources.

Blame Contagion

When divorcing couples discuss why their marriage went bad or how the divorce is likely to affect their children, they often try to outdo one another in their attempts to shift blame rather than accepting responsibility.  And for couples whose goal is to conduct an uncontested divorce online, tit-for-tat blaming is a sure-fire way to end up in a lawyer’s office.

Blaming others rather than accepting responsibility for one’s own mistakes simply doesn’t work. Studies find that people who blame others learn less from experience, lose credibility, and perform less well than those who take responsibility for their mistakes. The same applies to people working with others towards a particular goal, such as couples settling their own divorce, workgroups tackling a specific task, or families planning a vacation. When such groups resort to blaming whenever they hit an impasse, they are less creative, less focused on learning, and less productive.

As research has shown, however, changing the culture of blame isn’t easy: blaming is like a virus, it is highly contagious. Findings published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology by psychologists Nathanael Fast and Larissa Tiedens, demonstrated that simply being exposed to someone blaming others for a mistake was enough to trigger people to turn around and blame others for entirely unrelated failures.

The subjects in their experiments read about a special election in California in 2005 to fund several initiatives proposed by the governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. None of the initiatives passed. Some subjects read a version in which the governor blamed special interests for the defeat; others read a version in which the government took responsibility for the defeat.

Subsequently, the subjects were asked to write a short essay about personal failure. Subjects who had read the version in which the governor blamed special interests were twice as likely to blame others for their personal failure compared to the group who read the version in which the governor accepted responsibility for the election defeat. The researchers found the same pattern when they varied the stories the subjects read, such as who was to blame for someone not finding a job or an organization’s poor money management.

What drives the contagion of blame? The felt need to protect one’s self-image. When we observe others defend their egos, we reflexively defend our own.  Dr. Fast speculates that the blame virus spreads like a chain reaction: a father observes a Republican blame a Democrat for a failed legislative initiative; the father then turns around and blames his wife for the dog’s mess on the carpet. Their son, having witnessed this interaction, subsequently blames his poor math grade on an incompetent teacher. Interestingly, Fast and Tiedens found that they could inoculate subjects from being infected by another’s blame attributions when they directed the subjects to affirm their self-worth (by writing a paragraph about one of their important core values) before describing an experience of personal failure.

These findings provide clues about the practical steps you can take to interrupt the spread of blame:

  • Complain, don’t blame. If someone else’s mistakes must be addressed, do so constructively, with an emphasis upon what can be learned, rather than who is at fault: “I’m not interested in listening to your threats. Please find a different approach.”
  • Take responsibility. Resist the temptation to blame others when you make a mistake.  This is particularly important if you are in a position of authority or have a great deal of influence within the family. By taking responsibility, you make it safe for others to take responsibility: “I got off on the wrong foot, I’d like to start again.”
  • Maintain a focus on learning. Foster a culture in which mistakes are seen as opportunities to learn, not opportunities to be humiliated.  One way to do so is to reward others for demonstrating what they’ve learned from a mistake: “I can see a real change in how you’re approaching this problem, I appreciate that.”