The M Dash

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How to Resolve On-the-Job Conflict, Part 2

June 21, 2019 | Filed in: Your Career

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring the theme of conflict at work. We asked leaders in high-intensity fields to share their solutions to workplace power struggles by sketching some scenarios they’ve dealt with in their daily routines (see part 1 here). Next up: celebrity divorce attorney Laura Wasser.

Photo courtesy of Laura Wasser.

For many people, breaking up is hard to do. Celebrity divorce attorney Laura Wasser, who has represented Hollywood megastars such as Angelina Jolie, Britney Spears, and Kim Kardashian, understands that well after nearly 25 years representing aggrieved marital partners at Wasser, Cooperman & Mandles. She’s seen it all. “I had a guy a couple of years ago who decided he was going to make his final support payment in nickels,” she says. “Dumped it on his ex-wife’s lawn.”

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Wasser, who has a reputation for being a no-nonsense dealmaker, has little patience for this kind of petty stunt. Conflict, one could argue, is the lifeblood of family law—without it there would be no divorce, no custody battle, no exhaustive division of property—but making conflict go away is the driving force of Wasser’s career. “I’m a problem solver,” she says.

To that end, Wasser wrote a guide to having a (mostly) conflict-free divorce, It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way: How to Divorce Without Destroying Your Family Or Bankrupting Yourself. Last year, she launched It’s Over Easy, a digital divorce site that lets residents of California and New York file lawyer-free online.

Here, she shares some pro bono advice on how to handle conflict.

The conflict: When you’re dealing with raw emotion…

“Divorce is one of the most emotional experiences that people can go through,” Wasser says. “I kind of have to talk clients off the ledge.” That doesn’t mean she plays therapist. “I make sure they are thinking about the bigger picture, whether it’s the kids or [making] a good deal,” she says. “You want to figure out a way to spend as little money as possible on the litigation so you keep as much of it as possible in your bank accounts.” “It’s so sad to break up with somebody,” she adds. “I get that. I’m not saying, ‘Hey, it’s no biggie.’ What I’m saying is, ‘If it’s happening, can’t we do it better?’”

The resolution: Encourage rational thought.

If a client isn’t thinking clearly, perhaps remind her that the sooner she resolves a dispute, the sooner she can launch her next big project. “Even people going through a horrible time have a voice of reason in them somewhere,” Wasser says. “You have to connect with that.”

The conflict: When people outside the situation like to gossip…

Since divorce petitions are public record in California, Wasser typically works with opposing counsel to reach a settlement before even filing with the state. “Every time I file a case for a client, within five seconds it’s up on TMZ,” she says. “I really don’t want to try my cases in the media.” To ensure that she won’t have to, Wasser has a candid conversation with her client’s publicist about avoiding reporters once the news is out. Wasser says. “I tell them, ‘Let’s try to get through this with our heads down and make no comment.’”

The resolution: Keep the lid shut.

Your workplace conflict may not rise to the level of tabloid fodder, but in any situation, you should avoid playing into gossip—which can make a difficult experience that much stickier. “There is no question in my mind that saying nothing publicly is better than saying anything,” Wasser says. She tells her more loose-lipped clients that her agenda “is to get you out on the other end of this. If your agenda is to do that dragging your spouse along with you, it won’t go smoothly. You’re probably going to find that he or she is going to use some of the same tactics.”

Photo courtesy of Laura Wasser.

The conflict: When you’re thrown a curveball…

Wasser remembers walking into a four-way meeting with her client, his ex-wife, and her counsel. “My client’s wife looked at him and said, ‘So, are you sleeping with her, too?’, gesturing at me,” Wasser recalls. “I was like, Whoa, this is really not going the right way from the beginning. So I looked her right in the eye and said, ‘Oh, I would never sleep with him. Are you kidding?’ She started laughing.” Wasser later apologized to her client, but he wasn’t fazed—in fact, he commended her for reading his ex’s personality so well.

The resolution: Think on your feet.

Wasser’s humor in this scenario might not fly in an office environment, but her tip stands: “If everyone’s in a room together, you have to make a connection with the opposing party,” she says. “You have to be a chameleon and know your audience.”

The conflict: When you’re initiating a sensitive discussion…

“Years ago, somebody served one of my clients on Valentine’s Day with a box full of dead roses, and inside was the petition and summons,” Wasser recalls. That’s precisely how not to start a difficult conversation, she notes. “If you say, ‘I really don’t think this is working, I think we’re both gonna be better off if we separate’—you know, it’s still gonna hurt, but it’s not going to be such a slap in the face.”

The resolution: Set the right tone.

A kind, empathetic approach may not give you the same short-term satisfaction as a cutthroat one, but it’ll set you up for a smoother resolution in the long run. On top of that, Wasser points out, you may have to deal with this person for years to come. “You don’t want to go in scorched earth,” she says.

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Patti Greco is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn. She was previously Cosmopolitan's digital entertainment director and a staff editor at New York Magazine and Vulture. Read more of Patti's posts.

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