Dear Negotiation Coach: Cooling off after conflict

By — on / Conflict Resolution

Q: My former spouse of 18 years and I had an explosive breakup a year ago. After failing to overcome our mutual hostility during divorce mediation, we have avoided each other, communicating primarily through our attorneys. Our divorce is now final, but because we have shared custody of our two teenagers, we need to communicate regularly, and we will inevitably cross paths at their school programs and sporting events. How can we begin to build a civil relationship for the sake of our kids (and ourselves)?

A: We often think of negotiations as having clear starting and ending points, and we also tend to assume that we can walk away from someone if we are not getting along. But as your situation suggests, negotiation with particular counterparts must sometimes be a long-term, even lifetime, endeavor.

Your desire to forge a civil relationship with your ex is a great impulse. You might assume that you can start to break through the rancor and rebuild trust with friendly remarks and gestures. However, it is important to make such overtures with caution when dealing with someone you might view as an “enemy” or other hostile party.

Recent research supports this conclusion. Tanya Menon (Ohio State University), Oliver J. Sheldon (Rutgers University), and Adam D. Galinsky (Columbia University) asked some of their study participants to recall and write about a supportive friend and asked others to write about an unsupportive, hostile person in their lives. Next, the participants were asked to imagine that as they were about to run a race, the person they had written about (friend or foe) approached them and made either a hostile comment (“Don’t get your hopes up too high”) or a friendly remark (“I’m sure you’re gonna win this one”). Next, the participants read that they twisted an ankle during the race because of a problem with the track and could not finish.

Those who (hypothetically) encountered an enemy acting in a friendly way had so much difficulty making sense of the person’s behavior that they blamed him or her for their setback in the race and hoped to avoid running into that person in the future, lest they have more bad luck. By contrast, those who encountered supportive friends, hostile friends, or even hostile enemies were less thrown by the person’s remark and avoided such superstitious conclusions.

As these results suggest, acts of kindness can be insufficient to overcome the negativity that shrouds our relationships with our enemies. In fact, such gestures may even prompt a backlash, making us more likely to try to avoid those we distrust or dislike.

In negotiation, we often view the exact same offer less favorably when an enemy rather than a friend proposes it, a phenomenon called reactive devaluation. So, from a strategic standpoint, it may be premature for you to attempt to be especially friendly and generous to your ex at the start of this new stage in your relationship.

Angry, distrustful parties may need a significant cooling-off period before attempting to move forward. During this period, you might focus on meeting your legal obligations and modeling collaborative behavior for your children. Continue to enlist your lawyers or other intermediaries to sort out any conflicts that arise.

At the same time, recognize that you may recoil on instinct from any olive branch your former spouse might extend. Because your ex may be as eager as you are to restore harmony for your kids’ sake, try to accept acts of kindness at face value.

By behaving reliably and at a slight remove, you may be able to arrive at a détente with your ex that eventually leads to friendly conversations at graduations and weddings.

Katherine Shonk
Editor, Negotiation Briefings
Program on Negotiation
Harvard Law School


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