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Negotiations are messy. It helps to have anchors—ways of grounding yourself. Two of the best are breathing and pausing. Breathing  Most of us pay little attention to our breath, except when we lose it. We usually breathe shallowly, just enough to fill our lungs. Breathing fully from our bellies helps us to maintain equilibrium. Breathing from […]

Laurel Starks
Laurel Starks is a divorce real estate specialist. Trained in both mediation and collaborative divorce methods, she speaks frequently on real estate and divorce issues to legal and alternative disputes resolution groups.

Negotiations are messy. It helps to have anchors—ways of grounding yourself. Two of the best are breathing and pausing.


Most of us pay little attention to our breath, except when we lose it. We usually breathe shallowly, just enough to fill our lungs. Breathing fully from our bellies helps us to maintain equilibrium. Breathing from the abdomen reconnects our head to our lower body, creating a thread between the logical mind and intuition. (According to Chinese medicine, our intuition resides an inch or so below our navel). Abdominal breathing also helps prevent the mind from racing away with distracting thoughts.

Try This: 

Take ten deep, slow breaths. Don’t rush. As you breathe, become awake to each sensation, drawing air in through the nose, past the chest and lungs, and into the abdomen. Feel the expansion—put your hand there—hold the breath for a bit, and move energy out as you exhale.

To get maximum benefit, engage your whole rib cage. Keep your spine relaxed but straight, adding a slight forward tilt to your pelvis. Medical studies have shown that deep breathing lowers blood pressure and oxygenates the cells. This in turn helps the brain function better.

Breathing is so important that Japanese writer Michihiro Matsumoto devotes an entire section to it in his book The Unspoken Way. The term hara to a Japanese negotiator means “big-heartedness, including caring, understanding, and tolerance for different views, gained through experience.” People of hara listen more than they speak, accept things as they are, and don’t get personally or emotionally involved. And they breathe.

Matsumoto cites nine procedures for proper breathing in a negotiation:

  1. Breathing must be deep. There are four types of breathing: with the shoulders, the chest, the hara (abdomen), and the toes. Deep breathing here means with the hara.
  2. Breathing must be quiet.
  3. Breathing must be long. You must learn to take as long a breath as possible.
  4. Breathing must be steadily rhythmical. It must follow the rhythmic and repetitive pattern of exhaling-stop- inhaling-stop and back to exhaling.
  5. Holding your breath [briefly, in between inhalations and exhalations] is as important as breathing itself, since it signifies ma, a breathing pause.
  6. Breathing must be done in the correct posture. You must keep your spine as straight as possible but not tense.
  7. Breathing must be performed to create energy. The energy created by breathing is called prana in yoga and chi in Taoism. Breathing, according to Shinto, purifies stains of your mind or hara.
  8. Breathing must be done unconsciously. You must learn to get control of the rhythm of breathing until breathing becomes part of you.
  9. Breathing must be done to discover yourself in the midst of nature. You must be able to develop your cosmic consciousness or identify with the mother earth through nirvana-seeking breaths.

Long, slow breathing clears your mind and helps keep you focused. It also helps you stay calm and see potential solutions. You can use your breathing as an anchor to avoid being uprooted by your negotiation partner’s tactical ploys. Instead of crying “foul” or pushing back, just experience the discomfort of the ploy and keep breathing deeply. If necessary, count your breaths. Whenever you feel irritated during a negotiation, pause brie y and focus on breathing deeply.


Pausing in discussion, and allowing a few moments of silence to ensue, is a way to slow down the pace of negotiations. is creates space for clarification, reaction, and understanding. It also breaks (or at least dampens) the action/reaction/counter-reaction cycle that can undermine a negotiation. Although this reactive state sometimes manifests in a professional or business setting, it is more likely to arise in a personal negotiation where in the heat of the moment, you say something you later regret. Pausing and breath are especially important in these circumstances.

Many of us are uncomfortable with silence in conversation, but silence can be helpful by forcing us (and our negotiation partner) to reflect on what has been said. Transformative negotiators are as comfortable with silence and pauses as they are with speech. Indeed, when you incorporate pauses into communications, you will begin to notice that what hasn’t been said might be as important as what has been. You may also become more aware of what needs to be said that hasn’t been.

If your negotiation partner pauses, your job is to try to understand why. Is it deliberate? Are they searching for the appropriate word? Trying to fabricate a lie? What are they physically doing during the pause? Do they seem contemplative or agitated? Are they reaching for a glass of water, their iPad, or their briefcase?

Sometimes people pause to compose themselves when they feel emotional. If you suspect that to be the case with your negotiation partner, pay close attention to the person’s words, tone, and body language immediately after the pause. At other times, a pause may be an indication that someone is running out of persuasive steam. This might be an opportunity for you to step in, change the dynamics, and gain the upper hand. According to Matsumoto, pauses are critical to a Japanese speaker, but are often overlooked by Western negotiators.

It seems to me that Western conversationalists listen to the words between pauses, whereas Japanese haragei practitioners listen more attentively to the pauses between the words and gestures. One doesn’t need the art of persuasion that underlies Western communication practices to be a successful communicator in Japanese society. In fact, haragei performers are verbally inadequate in front of others, and by no means logical, coherent or articulate because they give ma (pauses and silence) full play. It is not surprising to learn then that the top salesmen of stocks, bonds, or insurance often turn out not to be smooth or slick talkers. By respecting ma, a speaker opens a space to achieve mutual understanding, gives the listener the time needed to process information, and offers the other an opportunity to interpret it.

Try This: 

The next time you have a conversation, try focusing on the pauses. What do they tell you about what the speaker is saying, feeling, or trying to communicate? Then look at your own emotional and physical responses to the silence. Does it make you uncomfortable? What are you feeling? How is your body responding? Do you feel a strong urge to say something? Can you simply stay silent for a time, despite your discomfort?

Try deliberately pausing when you want to emphasize something you’ve just said or to encourage your negotiation partner to reflect on it. What effect does this have on them? Does it increase the power of your last statement?

If not, try repeating it; then fall silent and pause again. Pausing can be a negotiator’s best ally. It allows you to take a breath, digest what has happened, and refocus your energies. Pausing may also force your negotiation partner to stop and re-evaluate what he or she (or you) just said. The space often makes new directions and breakthroughs possible.

Excerpt from The House Matters in Divorce by Laurel Starks, Unhooked Books.