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What is a Four Way Meeting?

I am copying a large part of this blog from Cristin M. Lowe, an excellent Counselor and Attorney at Law in Fairfield, Hayward and San Ramon, California. 

The dreaded four-way meeting, which you might also hear referred to as a "meet and confer session" or "settlement conference."  In many counties, it's frequently ordered by a judge that the parties and their attorneys must meet in-person.  Some counties (like Hamilton County, Ohio) require four-way meetings prior to certain hearings.  And even if it's not ordered, often times these meetings are invaluable in resolving your case.

At the same time, I think most of my 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 my guide to surviving a four-way meeting.

  1. Communicate with your attorney beforehand.  I personally find these pre-four-way meetings essential, and I try to avoid going into a four-way meeting without having a private meeting with my client first.  It's important for me to hear my client's concerns, so I can either provide clarification, protection, or validation.  It's also important for me to develop an agenda with my client to make sure that we use our time effectively.  Finally, I like to know my client's expectations.  Does he or she want me to take the lead, or should I sit back and just listen?  Does my client prefer to speak for himself or herself, or should I be speaking on his or her behalf?  Sometimes we'll even come up with a "code word," so if it's used, I know that my 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 with your attorney before the four-way meeting.

  1. Be effective.  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.

  1. Be respectful.  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 on 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 is not 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.

  1. Listen! I cannot tell you the number of times I've been in a four-way meeting where both parties are arguing non-stop, and I have 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.  But that opportunity can only be fully realized when you listen and pay attention.  Typically, much more is gained by listening than by speaking.

  1. 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.

  2. Think about the other side. Despite what you may think, I have saved the best tip for last.  I tell all my clients that they need to think about the other person.  Why?  Because the way to getting what you want is not 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 that.  In order to meet your goals, you have to convince the other person that they're also his or her goals.

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