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  • Writer's pictureTrish Guise

Why you want your ex to say No!

Updated: Jan 29, 2023

“Though the intensity may differ from person to person, you can be sure that everyone you meet is driven by two primal urges: the need to feel safe and secure, and the need to feel in control. If you satisfy those drives, you’re in the door”

- Chris Voss, Never Split the Difference©

My husband met Chris Voss a few years ago at the 2016 AFP Finance & Treasury Conference where Chris Voss was sharing excerpts from his newly released book Never Split The Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It© by Chris Voss. This was during the period when I was having to constantly fend off my ex-husband’s attempts to defy court orders, inflate my legal fees, counter-parent at every turn and alienate the children from me.

The techniques Chris Voss shared with the room of finance professionals were derived from his days of negotiating with actual terrorists. So, when my husband had the opportunity to spend a few minutes speaking with Chris Voss he wanted to get his thoughts on how he would handle an emotional terrorist like my ex-husband. My husband’s exact words were, “How do you negotiate with crazy?” and then went on to give Chris Voss a few examples of the kind of behavior we were dealing with. After thinking for a few minutes, Mr. Voss replied, “You don’t.

What a sobering moment.

Think about it...we thought we hit the time with a highly trained FBI hostage negotiator to ask him how he would handle some of the crazy behavior my ex was exhibiting. Voss routinely faced high stake situations and successfully negotiated the safe return of numerous hostages, surely he could advise us on how to negotiate with my difficult ex. Instead, Voss essentially just told us that you can't negotiate with crazy. But being one to never take no for an answer I spent the last few years adapting Chris Voss' techniques to use when communicating with my ex and am going to share some of my insights with you in this 4 part series.

Chris Voss often acknowledges how his principles are the antithesis of what we’ve been taught about negotiation. That is what got me thinking that his principles are exactly what one needs when negotiating with a difficult ex spouse. I feel confident in Chris Voss’ principles considering his track record of using his concepts in high stake scenarios. I figure if he can safely negotiate the safe return of a human being from an assassin, we may have a good shot at utilizing his techniques to disarm a difficult ex spouse during and after our divorces.

In this post we will look at some of Chris Voss’ general negotiation principles and how you can apply them when negotiating when Divorce agreements, your Parenting Plan and even when you are dealing with everyday co-parenting issues with your ex. In Part 2 we will look at some specific concepts and how to apply those when dealing with your ex-spouse.


Go for ‘NO’

Whether it’s in negotiations at work or trying to get your ex to agree to a parenting decision, we always strive for a YES and prefer to obtain it as quickly and painlessly as possible. Our natural tendency is to rush to the yes to avoid any uncomfortable conversations. This may stem from when we were little and learned early on that the word NO is not something we should strive for. Hearing the word, NO not only taught us what to do and what not to do but it also encouraged us to find a way around hearing the word NO.

When a person says YES to a proposal it removes their autonomy and they end up feeling trapped to a commitment whereas saying NO preserves a person’s autonomy and makes them feel safe and protected. Saying NO allows the person to feel in control and that it is their decision whether to act or not. As I’m sure you will agree it is much easier to get your ex to say NO then to say YES anyway, so why not use it to your advantage? Let's look at a few examples:

Asking for a YES

My family reunion is on July 1 when the kids are scheduled to be with you. Would it be okay if I took them to the event?

Your ex says: "NO you can’t take the kids":

  • This response may anger you which you may direct towards your ex.

  • This won't get you any closer to a YES.

  • You may barter with your ex in hopes that they will change their mind and may end up committing to things you normally wouldn't agree to.

  • This may get you closer to a YES but at a high price.

Your ex says: "YES you can take the kids":

  • Don’t get too excited because your ex may have felt compelled to say YES when they really wanted to say NO.

  • If that’s true, you run the risk of your ex causing problems either the day of the event or at a later date.

Asking for a NO

“My family reunion is on July 1 when the kids are scheduled to be with you that day. Would you be opposed to them attending the reunion on that day?

Your ex says:"YES I'm opposed"

  • Your ex probably won’t stop there and will go on to give you many reasons why they are opposed.

  • If not, then ask calibrating questions to determine the issue and move closer to a resolution.

Your ex says "NO I'm not opposed"

  • This is the most likely response because saying NO allows your ex to feel autonomous and in control.

  • Reality check: Saying NO to an ex always feels better than saying YES.


It’s Not Me, It’s You

If you're a problem solver like me, you probably walk into every conversation with your ex primed to offer solutions to whatever problem has arisen. I was quite proud of my penchant for problem solving, yet my ex-husband was not as appreciative. Initially I thought it was just because he insisted on being difficult until I realized that the problem was my approach.

I discovered that presenting solutions so early in the conversation put my ex-husband on the defensive. He felt that I “was telling him what to do again”. That made sense because control was of utmost importance to him. Even when my solutions were in his best interest, he couldn’t agree to them because it felt like he was relinquishing control. That was too much of a sacrifice for him and when I finally realized that I changed my approach.

When a problem presents itself, don’t rush in to provide a solution even if is a no-brainer. You may be right but if you don’t get buy-in from your ex, it won’t matter how right you are. Instead, spend time establishing trust, encourage collaboration and most importantly, ask questions to fully understand your ex’s point of view. If you learn what is driving their thought process, what they value and what they are afraid of you will be more apt to arrive at a solution that you both find palatable.

Do you really know what matters to your ex?

Do you really know what drives their thought process and decision-making?

I spent over twenty years with my ex, so I was confident that I knew everything about him and what drove his behavior. Boy was I wrong. Not until long after we signed our divorce papers did I realize I knew nothing about what motivated his behavior.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking you know how your ex is going to respond, take the time to get the information from the horse’s mouth (or horse’s ass, whichever may be the case) Before you launch into discussions on divisions of assets or parenting time, you need to develop an understanding of how your ex perceives the value of the items in questions.

Is keeping the house important?

Do they want more weekends than weekdays?

Do they care about the linens, furniture, tools, the lawnmower, the BBQ?

Many divorce negotiations assume that both parties value all items equally and the goal is to split everything down the middle. Big mistake. With a little investigation you will find there will be items that you and your ex value differently and this will have significant impact on how you should negotiate.

You want to determine what your ex value, why they value it and how it drives their decisions. The best way to do this is to ask Calibrated Questions which are questions meant to give the other party the illusion of control. These questions will prompt your ex to explain their rationale without even realizing that you have asked them to do that.

Our natural tendency is to ask 'why' questions when we disagree or we don't understand but it's best to stay away from asking your ex 'why'. Asking 'why' tends to put people on the defensive regardless of the tone used. "What' and 'how' questions are best to extract information from your ex without prompting an emotional response.

Calibrated Questions: WHAT and HOW

"WHAT makes you ask?"

"WHAT about this is important to you?"

"WHAT are we trying to accomplish here?"

"HOW can we solve this?"

"HOW are we supposed to do that?"

"HOW am I supposed to do that?"

"HOW would you like me to proceed?"

"HOW would you like to proceed?"

Each time I asked my ex a calibrated question he took it as an opportunity to explain his plight in great detail. This helped him maintain his sense of control, helped me build trust and allowed me to learn everything I needed to know about what was important to him. These questions allowed me to ascertain what was driving his behavior and decision making. All this without having to give up any information about my position. Talk about working from a position of strength!

Once I knew what was driving his thinking process, I was careful to respond in ways that would address this and his resistance points. Please note, however, the point is to use the information acquired to craft responses to gain buy-in, NOT to simply agree with your ex and capitulate to their requests. This is meant to be a recognizance mission not a waving the flag exercise.

Another good time to use calibrated questions is when you are being verbally attacked by your spouse. If your spouse is making accusations or making critical judgements, calibrated questions is the best way to change the course of the conversation. Asking a calibrated question will throw your ex off their equilibrium because they will be expecting you to retaliate not inquire further about how they feel. This should also give your ex time to cool down and respond with a cooler head.

In every interaction you have with your ex-spouse your mission should be to observe and gather information about your ex’s position, viewpoint and feelings, without revealing too much about your position. Not only will this assist you in determining how best to gain buy-in, it will also disarm your ex because you are focusing on what they have to say as opposed to what you have to say. Above all maintain your calm and be patient. Be the turtle not the hare.

Let's look at a few examples of what it looks like when using calibrated questions in response to being verbally attacked.

Example #1: Dad verbally attacking Mom

"Why won’t you buy new jeans for Jack? His jeans are so short on him they look like capris.

Obviously, the child support I PAY YOU is going towards getting your hair and nails done instead of buying clothes for the kids. You need to pay for for your own hair and nails and stop using MY money!

How can you be okay with sending Jack to school looking like that? It’s embarrassing.

What kind of mother are you?"

Mom's calibrated response to Dad

“What size of jeans do you buy for Jack and where do you buy them from? His legs are long like yours so you must be able to relate to how difficult it is to find jeans that fit."

Example #2: Mom verbally attacking Dad

"Let me get this straight, you have enough money to go golfing with your buddies or to take your girlfriend out, but not enough to pay for a new bike for Zoey to use at my house?

Because you are so selfish, Sarah has nothing to ride when she is over here but at least you and your girlfriend are happy.”

Stop being such a deadbeat Dad!"

Dad's calibrated response to Mom

“When is Zoey available to chat about what kind of bike she is looking for? The weather is sure getting nice so it’s a perfect time to shop for a bike.

How should we handle the transportation of Sarah’s bike back and forth between our houses so she can always use her bike when she wants?

Did your blood start to boil when you read Dad’s email accusing Mom of spending money only on herself and not the kids?

Did it infuriate you when Mom accused Dad of being a deadbeat Dad?

Didn't you want to fire off a nasty response telling Dad to worry about his own parenting skills instead of criticizing Mom's?

And then send one to Mom telling her she needs to focus on her own personal life and stop meddling in her ex-husband's?

You aren’t alone. Most people would have the same reaction and it is completely understandable, but not advisable. That would give Dad the kind of response he was hoping to receive…emotional, defensive, and retaliatory.

In example 1, Mom defused the situation by asking pointed questions about the solution to the problem. Dad has no choice but to answer the questions otherwise it will become blatantly obvious that he is just spewing out accusations and not wanting to solve the problem.

In example 2, Dad did not engage in a war of words over his personal life. He stuck to the issue at hand and responded in a fashion that would allow Mom to refocus on the issue as well.


Rule of Thumb:

Don't engage in a battle over accusations or disagreements.

Nothing will be gained from this.

You goal should be to defuse (and confuse)

then focus on a resolution that will be accepted by both parties.

Your ex’s opinion of you is not your concern…if it was, you would probably still be married.


Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series Killing Them with Kindness, where I will discuss how to incorporate Chris Voss’s negotiation strategies in your everyday communication with your ex.

Disclaimer: This article, in no way, is associated with Black Swan Group nor Chris Voss nor is it endorsed by nor commissioned by the Black Swan Group nor Chris Voss. The article is based solely on my experience and knowledge of the principles the Black Swan Group and Chris Voss espouse and how I choose to apply them to my practice.

The content is this publication is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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