3.17 Negotiating: Before, During and After

Now that you’ve learned the basics to collaborative negotiations, it’s time to learn more about actually doing negotiations. You will look at what to do before to prepare, what you will do during to have a positive environment and what you will do after to ensure the agreement goes forward.

Preparation is the most important part of negotiation. If you prepare well, it will show up in the results. Here are somethings to do to prepare for your negotiations.


Steps to Starting Negotiations

1) List of the Issues

  • In Chapter 2, you made a list of key issues. In the last section, you made several worksheets for each of the areas of conflict regarding the key issues of separation. Do you have a detailed list of topics now? Think about what needs to be decided. Those are the things that need to be on your list. You may need to go back to the previous activity to complete new Negotiation Worksheet.
  • The more neutrally you can state the topic, the easier it is for the other person to enter into the negotiation. List topics as questions. Example:
    Less neutral: “Should Johnny go to French immersion next year?”
    More neutral: “Where will Johnny attend school next year?” 
  • Gather the information relevant to the topics. If you’re going to be talking about financial matters be sure to organize and take your financial documents.

2) Initiate the Negotiation

  • You can schedule negotiations as face to face meetings or you can choose an alternate communication channel. Keep the invitation friendly and light. Don’t tell the other person what to do or what is best. Suggest a neutral place and time to talk without interruption. If you have children, they should not be present when you negotiate.
    Example: “I would like to talk about Johnny’s daycare situation. As you know, he’s been having trouble adjusting. Are you available to talk about this next Wednesday night on the phone, around 8 pm?”

3) Suggest Guidelines

  • Set out a guide for talking to each other respectfully, based on your previous experiences. For instance, if in past conversations there has been a lot of blaming language, you could say: 
    “I know that when we’ve talked before there has been a lot of blaming on both sides and that hasn’t helped. Could we agree that if that happens again, one of us will point it out and we will take a short break to calm down?”
  • Other common guidelines can cover how to behave during the negotiations. For example, you can set rules on not interrupting and letting the other person finish their thought; not raising your voice; taking set breaks, etc.

4) Create an Agenda Together

  • You will probably need to have more than one negotiation session. In order to work out all of the issues, you will probably meet several times. Plan to discuss certain topics at certain times. It is best if you work with a shared agenda.
  • When you set up the negotiation you can suggest your topic items, invite the other person to comment and add their own. Or you can offer to email the list of topics and invite their response. The main point is to work together on it.
  • At the start, keep the agenda short. Be strategic in selecting issues to discuss. Ideally, you want to finish the first round of negotiations feeling good about the process and feeling like you are moving toward agreement.

When Negotiating 

1) Start with Easy

  • Don’t start with the hardest topic. Start small. Like a child, you will crawl, walk and then run. It’s easier to tackle difficult issues when you have already built agreement on other issues. You want to build on your successes. Getting some of the less disputed topics off the table will help you and your former spouse feel like you are moving forward. Carrying positive momentum into your discussions will help you both be more open to solutions.

2) Stay on Topic - Focus on Interests

  • Focus on the topic and not your feelings about your former spouse.
  • Be professional by remaining calm and open to discussion, but focused on the topic at hand.
  • When you’re talking about a desired outcome for an issue, share why the outcome is important, and not just what is important to you. Discuss shared interests.
  • If you don’t understand why something is important to your former partner, ask him or her to explain. Understanding the reasons behind why each of you want something will make it easier to find a solution that you can both agree on.
  • If you feel you are not getting a chance to share your viewpoint, express your need to say what you need to say. For example: “I haven’t had a chance to get my point across. Could you give me some space/time to say what I need to say?”

3) Listen

  • Practice active listening. Repeat the key interests expressed by your former spouse. Try to understand the motivations behind their goals.  
  • Listen for their interests. Ask: “Why is this important to you?”
  • Don’t judge. When we are in conflict, we have a tendency to put down whatever the other person is saying. We discount it. If you find yourself judging what the other person is saying, stop. Pause or take a break. Refocus your communication and your energies on working toward a positive solution.
  • Throughout your negotiation, provide positive feedback about the progress you are making.
  • If you don’t understand what your former spouse is saying or where they are coming from, ask for clarification. Try to clear you mind of assumptions about what their perspective might be.
  • Feelings – keep in mind that everyone has a right to feel the way they feel. You may not agree with the feeling; however, telling someone that they “shouldn’t feel that way” is seldom productive.

4) Find Solutions

  • Use your preparation notes and the Negotiation Worksheet to guide you. Focus on the best interests of the children. Try to find shared interests to build agreement around. Be creative about to work things out.
  • Look for solutions together. Present possible solutions as suggestions, not demands. Asking questions is a great way to get input, without declaring your preference. For example, start with “What do you think if we…?” instead of saying “I think we should…”
  • Keep in mind that you don’t need all of the answers now. For some things, you just need to decide on an approach to reach an agreement later. If you can agree on how you will make the decision later, that’s a good solution for now. For example, if you need to choose a daycare, it might be easier if you both agree on how to decide on the important things like cost and location, rather than actually making a decision now.
  • If you feel unsure or extremely pressured about making a decision, take time to consider it and get feedback from others. You do not always have to come to a decision in the same conversation as the negotiation. It is OK to say that you need time to think about the issue, and perhaps get some advice.

5) Don’t Get Stuck – Get Help

  • You and your former spouse may not be able to come to agreement on all the issues that need to be decided. Don’t get stuck. Keep working through issues until all of them have been discussed. At the end, you can come back and revisit those issues where you did not reach agreement.
  • If you cannot reach agreement on some of the issues, get help. Chapter 4 – Get Help describes a number of professionals who can help you to reach an agreement, without going to court.  For example, throughout the province, Family Justice Counsellors (FJCs) can meet with you to help find solutions. This is a free service and FJCs are trained in family mediation.

6) Take Notes

  • Make sure you write down all the details of what you both agree to. Who is going to do what, by when?
  • Be clear about what has been agreed upon, what needs confirmation and what has yet to be addressed. You do not want to either party to feel like the negotiations are going backwards.
  • Always clarify what you believe has been agreed to by both of you before you leave the conversation.

7) Plan Ahead

  • It is worthwhile to reach agreement on what happens when things don’t go as planned. It’s good to have a contingency plan. For example, if one parent will always take the child to piano class, what happens if that person can’t make it one day? If someone is going to be late, what kind of notice needs to be given? Spending time now to have contingency plans will save frustration later, when plans do change.
  • In addition, you need to reach agreement about how you will reach agreements in the future. This is especially true if there are children involved. For example, it can be very helpful to have an agreed formula for calculating special and extraordinary expenses that come up. If one of you changes jobs or moves, how will that impact schooling, transportation, extra-curricular activities, etc. For better or for worse, sometimes life throws us curveballs and it is helpful to plan for change.


After Negotiating

1) Put it in Writing

Write down the details of what you have agreed on. Both of you should review it to be sure the agreement says what you intended. Make sure that you are both OK with what the agreement says. You can write your agreement simply, using ordinary words.  Putting things in writing will increase the chances that your agreement will be followed by both of you.

2) Stay Positive

At the end of the session, express positive feelings about the agreement you have reached. This was probably a difficult process for both of you. As hard as it was to get to agreement, share your feelings about the fact that you both succeeded.

  • “I feel better about this now that we are talking.”
  • “I appreciate this.”
  • “I am glad that we were able to work this out together.”
  • “Thank you.”

3) Consider a Check-in

Decide if you need to check in to see if things are going well. If it is possible, you might even consider having regular meetings to discuss how things are going.


There may be cases where in spite of your best efforts, it is not possible to communicate with the other person. In that case, it may be a good idea to enlist the help of a professional (mediator, counsellor, spiritual advisor) or a friend or family member who has the trust of the other person and is willing to help.