Practicing Family Law With Heart For More Than 25 Years

When Math People & Feelings People Negotiate

By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
© 2010 High Conflict Institute, LLC

As a mediator and as an attorney, I’ve noticed that some cases get stuck because one party is a “math person” and the other party is a “feelings person.” Whether it’s a divorce, a business dispute or a personal injury settlement, these differences can block settlement unnecessarily, unless the professionals and the parties recognize them and include both styles in the process. Here’s 7 tips I’ve learned (often the hard way), based on many cases with the same general patterns:

Math People
Math people tend to come to the negotiation table with it all figured out on their own. They may even have charts and lots of financial records. They have run the calculations and figured out the proper resolution of the dispute. They believe their answer is the “right” answer, so discussions will not really be necessary. In fact, discussions are sometimes seen as irritating and viewed as a challenge to their math abilities.

Why can’t you just accept that this is the right number for the resolution of our dispute? they often ask. Math people seem to dislike unnecessary diversions, like talking about feelings. Significant deviations from their proposals feel disrespectful and are met with anger and resentment. They may threaten going to court, because they have already calculated their chances in court, given the various legal and financial factors. They want to be done with the dispute. Since legal disputes are mostly settled when one party pays the other, they want to quickly agree on a settlement number and pay it or receive it.

Feelings People
Feelings people, on the other hand, usually don’t have a clear idea of what they want. They often feel that they have been taken advantage of, and they want to be compensated for their injury – whether it’s a personal injury claim, a business deal gone bad, or a divorce which included some “bad behavior” in their point of view (sometimes the math person agrees, but more often he or she doesn’t). They may feel entitled to a substantial settlement to make up for the past and/or to give them a feeling of security in the future. They may be in shock over what has happened to them, or they may be feeling much fear about what will become of them in the future. Feelings people may see themselves as facing impossible problems in the future, so that they need a substantial settlement to provide the security that they feel they cannot provide themselves.

Why can’t you see what you’ve done to me and how disadvantaged I will be in the future? they often ask. Why can’t you see how you’ll be so much better off than I will be? They feel helpless and seriously disrespected when their proposals are rejected. Discussions feel increasingly painful, as the math person seems to reject the feelings person’s point of view. The feelings person may feel abandoned and disrespected, especially if he or she was in a relationship with expectations of being taken care of – whether by an insurance company, a business partner, or a seemingly successful spouse.

The pattern of negotiations in these cases seems to be as follows:

The math person makes a proposal that is close to their expectation of the final settlement – or that IS their final settlement number. Let’s be done with it and move on, they seem to say.

The feelings person makes a proposal that is in line with how they feel: entitled to be taken care of or compensated for being injured. This proposal is often beyond what the legal and financial standards would be – especially those that the math person took into account.

I have seen this happen over and over again. In personal injury settlements, it often is the plaintiff who makes a settlement proposal that is way beyond what the defendant thinks is the reasonable range of settlement. I have seen defense attorneys burst out laughing when they have heard the plaintiff’s offer. Sometimes this is part of their negotiation strategy (to belittle the other party’s perspective, to wear them down). But other times I believe that they are truly shocked. But, sometimes the final settlement is closer to what the plaintiff originally proposed, so I remain open-minded, regardless of the beginning responses of both sides.

On the other hand, the feelings person feels frustrated that the math person thinks they have it all figured out. They feel shut out of the process, when the math person seems not to care about the feelings person’s point of view, efforts at making settlement proposals, and their desire to discuss the issues, from the past to the future. In short, both parties feel ignored, disrespected and frustrated.

Court Expectations
When this happens, one or both parties tend to threaten to go to court. Here’s what their expectations often are:

The math person expects that the court agree with his or her side and base a settlement number on the exact same information that he or she used in calculating a settlement proposal.

The feelings person expects that the court will come down hard on the math person, and will award the feelings person a fantastic amount, because of the bad actions of the math person. Since the law allows compensation for bad acts in rare cases, the feelings person feels that this will be such a case.

A House Case
In one case, a woman jointly owned a house with her boyfriend. When they parted ways, they both wanted the house. They agreed on a value for the house and finally agreed that she would get the house and pay him half of that value. Then she discovered some physical problems with the house, which she believed he knew about and should have disclosed in calculating her equalizing payment. She initiated settlement discussions with him to eliminate having to pay him half the value, because of what she perceived as his fraud, which she believed reduced the value of the house. She insisted that she should get the house and owe him almost nothing.

This seemed like an extreme position to the boyfriend, so he refused any settlement different from their original deal. She eventually took him to court, seeking to be relieved from paying him anything. She was so focused on feeling taken advantage of, that she overlooked two important facts, one financial and one legal: 1) The housing market had actually increased the value of her house since their original deal was made, so that she was getting a windfall in value even if the physical problems of the house were all taken into account. 2) There was a clause in their original agreement that said she had only 90 days to pay him, after which he could get the house and pay her the same equalizing payment.

They went to court, with her believing the court would favor her, because of the injury to her of him not disclosing problems with the house. He won, because of the two reasons above (her legal case took her beyond the 90 day clause). He got the house, but with no sense of satisfaction, after all that they went through – emotionally and financially. And she, the feelings person, was devastated – emotionally and financially.

A Support Case
In another case, a wife felt she deserved spousal support far above the normal guidelines based on their current financial situation, but in line with their earlier standard of living. The husband and his attorney readily agreed to the current guideline amount, but she refused to accept that. Over the next year, the wife found numerous minor flaws in the husband’s finances, demanded the disclosure of approximately 10,000 documents, and raised issues about them at numerous hearings.

The husband won on some of these issues and lost on others, but all of them cost him a substantial amount in attorney’s fees. By the end of the year, the husband told his attorney that he would have gladly paid the higher spousal support if he had realized what it would put him through – financially and emotionally. And the wife had little sense of satisfaction. Even though she won on some issues, she lost on others and the court battle cost her a lot of what she “won” – financially and emotionally.

In both of these examples, a woman is the feelings person and a man is the math person, which is more often the way I have seen this work. However, I have also seen many examples of this same dynamic with the genders reversed, as well as with business partners and personal injury cases with parties of the same gender.

Lessons Learned
I have seven tips for the parties and dispute resolvers when this dynamic may occur:

For the Math Person

1) Start out interested in what the other person has to say. Let him or her know that you want to understand how they feel about the dispute. Avoid talking about money until there has been a sufficient amount of discussion. Let the other person know that you understand and respect their point of view, even if you do not agree with it.

2) Make your first financial proposal with plenty of room to negotiate. The feelings person needs to feel that you made significant changes in your position, based on what he or she said. This doesn’t mean to be extreme in your proposals, but don’t try to mathematically resolve the whole dispute on your own and start with the final number. Allow room for discussion. You never know when the solution may be something quite different from the usual financial or legal standards, which is better for both of you.

3) Don’t threaten to go to court. Wait until it’s clear that you really can’t settle the case, then say that’s what you’re doing next and just do it. Premature threats to a feelings person are highly offensive and may undermine their sincere efforts to settle out of court. You may actually pay a lot more by fighting in court for your carefully-calculated number, with the costs of your attorneys fees, your lost work time, potential damage to your reputation, and the end to any positive communication with the feelings person in the future. And don’t give up when a feelings person threatens to go to court. Until they really do it, there may still be room to negotiate. Don’t be intimidated by the other party’s feelings. Feeling upset is often their reaction to math.

For the Feelings Person

4) Before you negotiate, talk to a professional about the financial realities of your case. Get an idea of the range of realistic outcomes, so that you can assess the math person’s numbers when they present them. When the math person presents a proposal, ask him or her to explain how it was calculated, so that you can get a clearer idea of whether they are trying to take advantage of you. Even if the math person’s proposals are surprising, don’t assume they come from a bad faith position until you have spoken again with a professional.

5) Make your first financial proposal within a realistic range of legal options. Avoid just making a proposal based on how you feel. You can lose credibility and may push the other party into prematurely thinking of going to court. Don’t take it personally if the math person asks questions about how you came up with that number. Math people often can’t think of another perspective other than their own calculations, until it is presented and explained to them.

6) Don’t threaten to go to court. Wait until it’s clear that you really can’t settle the case, then say that’s what you’re doing next and just do it. Premature threats of court to math people can also shut down the chances of a reasonable settlement. Remember that math people have often already calculated the cost of court and their percent chances of winning or losing. For this same reason, don’t give up negotiating when a math person threatens to go to court. Until they really do it, there may still be room to negotiate. Don’t be intimidated by math people. Math is often how they deal with feeling upset.

For Dispute Resolvers:

7) Avoid favoring Math People or Feelings People. When this dynamic occurs, it’s easy to become hooked into seeing one side as the reasonable person and the other side as the unreasonable person – perhaps based on your own personal tendencies. If you are a mediator, it is especially helpful to explain this dynamic and tell the parties that both styles are equally valid and that they need to be patient with each other. Help them take the time to really listen to and understand each other’s point of view.

If you are a lawyer or financial adviser for one side or the other, help your client understand the financial realities – but also the financial flexibilities for possible settlement. At the same time, help your client see the benefits of patiently listening to the other side and understanding their point of view.

When parties in a dispute have distinctly different styles, it’s easy to get stuck arguing over who is using the “right” approach. Even when one party is a math person and the other party is a feelings person, settlement is almost always possible – especially when both parties fully understand the legal and financial realities, and ALSO each other’s point of view.