Communication with Your High Conflict Ex Part 2: Killing Them With Kindness:
Updated: Nov 15
In my previous post I discussed the importance of determining what matters most to your ex and what drives your ex’s behavior and decisions. This is only step one, step two is demonstrating that you understand what is important to your ex, in order to gain your ex’s trust. In his book, Never Split The Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It© Chris Voss talks about the concept of Tactical Empathy and how it is a crucial element in successful negotiations. Let’s talk a look at what it is and how you can apply it to communicating with your ex.
“The beauty of empathy is that it doesn’t demand that you agree with the other person’s ideas.” -- Chris Voss, Never Split the Difference©
I bet you are saying to yourself “there is no way I could ever show my ex any empathy. The last thing my ex deserves is empathy after what they put us through.” Not so, consider the following:
Empathy is the act of being aware of, being sensitive to and understanding the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another person. But as Chris Voss states, empathy does NOT require you to agree with those feelings, thoughts, and experiences.
Now if I said to you need to show empathy towards your ex-spouse when negotiating the parenting arrangements, you would probably think I’ve lost my mind. I imagine the thought of having empathy for your difficult ex-spouse who counter parents isn’t a welcome idea. But that is probably because you confuse empathy with being nice to the other party or agreeing with them. Not so. Empathy is all about understanding the other party’s position, trying to identify and label what they are feeling. Two of the most effective methods of showing empathy in a negotiation are Mirroring and Labelling.
As humans, we are naturally drawn to the familiar and tend to fear what is different. We are more apt to respond favorably, cooperate and share more information when we feel the other party understands us and we feel comfortable with them. To encourage your ex to feel comfortable enough to share you need to show interest in what they are saying and establish trust. One of the most effective ways of doing this is through the Mirroring technique.
To mirror your ex simply repeat the last 1-3 words that your ex spoke and frame it as a question. This will prompt your ex to elaborate on what they just said, allowing you to gain further insight into what they want. When mirroring your ex, the intent is to show interest and curiosity in what they are saying rather than judging. Doing so with a neutral tone to your voice should prevent your ex from getting defensive. Here are some examples of what mirroring looks like.
Your Ex: "You drive the kids. I'm busy with a project."
You: "Busy with a project?"
Your Ex: “Why do you always have to stir up conflict?”
You: “Stir up conflict?”
In both examples, your ex will be expecting you to either accept their answer or to retaliate with an aggressive response. By offering a mirror question you de-escalate the animosity and give your ex an opportunity to elaborate on what the issue really is.
Acknowledgement and validation are two things we constantly strive to attain, and they often remain elusive. Being able to accurately label your ex’s feelings will go a long way towards making them feel acknowledged and heard. Most of us label people’s actions and emotions all the time but we tend to keep those labels to ourselves. When you don’t share the labels with your ex you lose the opportunity to confirm your assessment is correct and you lose the opportunity to make your ex feel validated.
“It seems like…you think it’s okay to speak to me that way.”
“It sounds like…you are upset about what I just said."
“It looks like…you are quite angry.”
When you use labels, one of two things will happen: your ex will agree with your label or your ex will disagree. Both are desirable outcomes.
If your ex agrees with your label, they will feel that you ‘get them’ and will invariably go on to describe their position in even greater detail but with less defensiveness and aggression. You may notice their shoulders drop, their speech will lose the aggressive tone and they may sit with less rigidity in their chair because they no longer feel the need to ‘pounce’.
Why would disagreement with your label also be a good thing?
Have you ever known your ex to stay quiet when they disagree with your assessment of anything? I didn’t think so. If they disagree with your label, they will probably speak in even greater detail about their position then if your assessment was correct. When they do this, listen attentively to what they are saying as they will give you clues about how they are feeling.
I'm sure you had times where you wish you could just get your ex to stop speaking to you in such an offensive manner. But every time you try and stop it, you end up in a battle of wills and invariably end up losing. When you are on the receiving end of belligerent, inappropriate, patronizing or offensive behavior, try labelling to stop the behavior. There are 3 different ways to use labelling when trying to stop abusive behavior.
1. Redirect the Conversation - when behavior needs to stop but doesn’t need to be called out.
“It seems like your time is really important to you."
2. Interrupt their thought pattern - when behavior needs to stop but doesn’t need to be called out)
“It seems like you’re not interested in moving forward with mediation.”
“It looks like you have a reason for asking me that.”
3. Confronting - when behavior needs to stop and it needs to be addressed.
“It sounds like you think it’s okay to denigrate me in front of the kids."
“It looks like you think it’s okay to tell our child that I’m not a safe parent”
If you are fortunate enough to receive an apology from your ex-spouse after using one of these tactics, please do not dismiss it by saying “it’ okay, it isn’t a big deal.” This will undo all your hard work and will diminish the credibility you have established.
Instead, you can say:
It feels like we are on the same page now."
It sounds like you’re ready to work together on a solution.”
The thought of showing empathy toward your ex-spouse doesn't have to send chills up your spine. Using the techniques of Mirroring and Labelling to show empathy are highly effective.
These techniques allow you to remain in control while encouraging your ex to feel comfortable enough to share further information with you. Information that will give you the edge.
Stay tuned for Part 3 of this series Be the First to Call Attention to the Elephant in the Room where I will discuss how to use your ex’s negative reactions to your advantage.
Disclaimer: This article is, in no way, 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.