In Acrimonious Disputes, Conflict Management is Key

Madonna and Guy Ritchie’s recent public court battle highlights the value of private negotiation.

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In Acrimonious Disputes Conflict Management is Key

Parties to a business dispute often become so focused on beating the other party that they lose sight of their most important goals. Conflict management efforts can be even more intense and seeming insurmountable between estranged romantic partners with a history of acrimony and distrust.

Consider rock star Madonna’s ongoing legal dispute with her ex-husband, film director Guy Ritchie, over where their 15-year-old son, Rocco, should live.


In our FREE special report from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School – The New Conflict Management: Effective Conflict Resolution Strategies to Avoid Litigation – renowned negotiation experts uncover unconventional approaches to conflict management that can turn adversaries into partners.


The conflict surfaced in the public eye on December 23, 2015, when Madonna appeared at a New York Supreme Court hearing regarding her son. The proceedings revealed that Rocco, who had been on tour with his mother earlier in the month, had been living with his father in the United Kingdom and had expressed a desire to continue living abroad, according to People magazine.

Justice Deborah Kaplan ordered that Rocco be returned to the United States by the following month. The following day, Madonna reportedly filed legal proceedings in London under the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction on the grounds that Rocco was being retained abroad illegally.

A stressful situation

Rocco enrolled in school in the United Kingdom and remained there through the early months of 2016. A source close to Ritchie told People that Madonna visited her son in London in late January but was unable to persuade him to return to her home in New York.

On March 2, after coming close to negotiating a new custody agreement on their own, but falling short, lawyers for both of Rocco’s parents and the boy’s court-appointed attorney met with Justice Kaplan at a hearing in New York. The conflict management effort resulted in an agreement for Rocco to remain in London—a concession from Madonna—while his parents attempted to negotiate a new custody settlement privately.

The following day, Madonna’s attorney in the United Kingdom moved to withdraw her legal proceedings in that country. A few days later, Madonna dedicated a son to Rocco during a concert in New Zealand. “There’s no love stronger than a mother for her son, and if I talk about him too much, I’m going to cry,” she said. “I hope he hears this somewhere and he knows how much I miss him.”

A plea for conflict resolution

On March 21, a high court judge in the United Kingdom agreed to allow Madonna to withdraw her proceedings there. The judge, Justice Alistair MacDonald, noted that “a temporary breakdown in trust” seemed to underlie the dispute over Rocco’s custody. “For all the media coverage, comment and analysis, this is a case born out of circumstances that arise for countless separated parents the world over.”

The judge also issued a plea to Rocco’s parents to find an amicable resolution to their dispute, the Guardian reports. “The boy very quickly becomes the man,” MacDonald wrote. “It would be a very great tragedy for Rocco if any more of the precious and fast-receding days of his childhood were to be taken up by this dispute.” He urged Ritchie and Madonna to see the value of ending their family conflict resolution efforts with the goal of “enjoying, in turn, the company of the mature, articulate and reflective young man who is their son.”

Rocco was expected to remain in London through the remainder of the school year. Meanwhile, his parents were expected to continue their conflict management efforts. If they fail, they are expected to face another court hearing in New York on June 1, People reports.

Jump-starting conflict management

How can parties who no longer trust one another jointly make smart decisions for themselves and others? Here are three pieces of advice to help you improve your conflict resolution skills:

Question your assumptions. When parties have a long history of mistrust and suspicion, they tend to assume that the other party is completely unreasonable and acting out of spite. Try to allow for the possibility that your counterpart is capable of being rational and reasonable, and look at the causes of conflict from his or her point of view. If you dealt with each other successfully in the past (whether you were married or doing business together), you likely are capable of doing so again.

Avoid escalation. If a counterpart takes a tough opening stance in a negotiation or conflict management process, most people tend to escalate the situation with a bold move of their own, such as filing a lawsuit or taking the dispute public. Try to resist the temptation to escalate tensions. Keep your negotiations private as much as possible, remain aware of your varying conflict styles, and offer token concessions to demonstrate your good will.

Try a collaborative approach. Because lawyers can ratchet up tensions in a dispute, consider starting with mediation instead. A skilled mediator can help parties identify their shared interests and focus on what really matters.


In our FREE special report from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School – The New Conflict Management: Effective Conflict Resolution Strategies to Avoid Litigation – renowned negotiation experts uncover unconventional approaches to conflict management that can turn adversaries into partners.


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