Ah, the dreaded four-way meeting, which you might also hear referred to as a, “meet and confer” session. In many counties, it’s frequently ordered by a judge that the parties and their attorneys must meet in-person. Some counties (like Alameda County) require four-way meetings prior to certain hearings. And even if it’s not ordered, oftentimes these meetings are invaluable in resolving your case.
At the same time, we feel most of our clients are more nervous about a four-way meeting than going to see the judge. Let’s face it: for most divorcing people, the last thing they want to do is sit in a conference room across the table from the other and talk about their personal issues. For people who have been victims of threats, intimidation, harassment, or other forms of domestic violence, meeting with the other party can be extremely scary. Here’s our guide to surviving a four-way meeting.
Communicate with your attorney beforehand
We personally find these pre-four-way meetings essential, and try to avoid going into a four-way meeting without having a private meeting first. It’s important for an attorney to hear their client’s concerns, so they can provide clarification, protection, or validation. It’s also important for an attorney to develop an agenda with their client to make sure their time is used effectively. Finally, attorneys should be aware of their client’s expectations. Does the client want their attorney to take the lead, or should the attorney sit back and just listen? Does the client prefer to speak for himself or herself, or should the attorney be speaking on their client’s behalf? Sometimes an attorney and client will come up with a “code word,” so if it’s used, the attorney knows that their client needs something, whether it’s a break, private time, or a change of subject. So even if your attorney doesn’t suggest it, be proactive and ask to meet before the four-way meeting.
Only do or say those things which will be effective and help you move forward. Being effective means advancing toward goals which are consistent with your interests and principles. It might feel good in the moment to be critical, blame, or accuse, but that one sarcastic comment can undo a lot of hard work. Remember the big picture and your personal goals. Unless what you have to say helps you attain those goals, don’t say it.
The other person may not show it, but try to remember that a divorce is a very difficult transition for both of you, whether it’s emotional, financial, physical, or all of the above. Both of you are dealing with a number of changes in your lives, and often times it’s more difficult for one than the other. It’s unlikely that you will both be at the same emotional place at the same time. It’s even more unlikely that the two of you will be able to process information the same way and the same time. This requires both of you to have compassion and awareness. Sometimes you need to slow down. Sometimes you need to speed up. Be respectful. If your spouse has always been terrible with finances, don’t expect that person to be able to understand the detailed budget that you put together. If your spouse has historically procrastinated, he or she isn’t going to magically produce information before a deadline. Trying to rush or change the other person is not just disrespectful, but it’s also counterproductive.
We cannot tell you the number of times we’ve been in a four-way meeting where both parties are arguing non-stop, and the attorneys had to intercede because neither one of them realized that they were both saying the same thing in different words. A four-way meeting is an opportunity to communicate face-to-face, without the potential miscommunication that so often happens over email or via text message. But that opportunity can only be fully realized when you listen and pay attention.
Think outside of the box
Focus on being creative. Why can’t you come up with a solution that solves both of your problems? Don’t be afraid to brainstorm potential options and develop as many choices as possible before shifting into an evaluative mode and choosing solutions. The potential for conflict should not lead to the avoidance of important issues. Conflict can be useful if it leads to a productive result and is handled sensitively. Think of it as an opportunity to come up with a great solution. Ask your attorney for ideas on how other people in your situation have handled these problems. Listen to what the other attorney has experienced. And don’t discount the other side’s ideas, either.
Think about the other side
Despite what you may think, we saved the best tip for last. We tell all our clients that they need to think about the other person. Why? Because the way to getting what you want isn’t by telling the other side it’s what you want. It’s your job to convince the other side that what you want is best for him or her. That’s Negotiation 101. It’s all about the other side – what does he or she value, want, need? What’s the best way to approach the other party? Just because you’d want a settlement offer packaged up a certain way does not mean that your spouse wants the same. In order to meet your goals, you have to convince the other person that they share those goals as well.