“Divorce with kindness” might seem like a challenge, but it should be your goal.
I recently heard part of a story on NPR in which a grade school teacher talked about her favorite word: Kindness. She commented that she was going to get rid of all of her classroom rules and just post “Be Kind.”
This made me think about my divorce cases and how different so many of them could be if the lawyers and clients could just focus on that one phrase. Of course, there are situations when that is not a realistic expectation (for example, if there is family violence involved), but the vast majority of cases might look a lot different if kindness could be incorporated into the process.
What does it mean to be kind? It’s more than being nice. Nice has to do more with social norms of etiquette and decorum. Being kind is an active skill in which we “engage in other people’s interests and take on their pains and pleasures as your own”, according to Dacher Keltner, director of the Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley. Think about those who consciously pay it forward, send an appreciative note to someone, or deliver a meal to a sick neighbor.
There is scientific evidence that being kind is good for us. Being kind makes us feel good, and that in turn activates the reward circuit of our brain. (To learn more about this idea, read Keltner’s book “Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life.”)
I have seen countless cases in which acts of kindness had significant impacts on the divorce process, and I believe also impacted the outcomes. First, as a lawyer, I learned over time that how I interacted with other lawyers could either help or harm my clients. That doesn’t mean giving in. But it means treating my opposing counsel with respect, even when that it is difficult. It means realizing that, as family law attorneys, we are part of a group that is like its own family, and we will have many cases with each other over time so we need to treat each other well. It means getting to know other attorneys personally and genuinely caring about them. It makes practicing family law so much less stressful and benefits clients tremendously.
As a family law attorney, my goal is to help my clients achieve their best possible outcome. That includes a financial settlement and a parenting plan that works for them. By helping my clients have empathy for their spouse, and engage in acts of kindness, my clients have a much greater chance of achieving their goals. Beyond the actual settlement, helping to focus my clients on acts of kindness also helps pave the way for them to find happiness post-divorce, whether that is in their jobs, in their relationship with their former spouses, or with their lives in general. Remember what I said earlier about how being kind makes us feel good and activates our brain in positive ways?
As lawyers, it is our job to know the law and explain it and the legal options to our clients. But we also need to help them make the important shifts in being kind to their spouse so that they can maximize their opportunity for positive outcomes, as well as a post-divorce life that is happy for them and their children.
About the author: Jody Johnson is a Dallas and Plano-based collaborative family lawyer, serving clients in Collin, Dallas, and Denton Counties.