Collaborating with the Enemy book: What it can teach divorcing couples


Collaborating with the enemy

Collaborating with the Enemy is a book written by by Adam Kahane. In this article we look at how lessons from within the book can apply to divorcing couples.


Collaborating with the Enemy during divorce

Couples going through a divorce can rarely imagine a time when they could ever work together, let alone collaborate. It is notable that the word ‘collaboration’ has two quite distinct meanings, which are related but almost diametrically opposed to each other:

  1. The situation of two or more people working together to create or achieve the same thing.
  2. The situation of people working with an enemy who has taken control of their country.

It’s almost as if collaborating with friends and colleagues is a good thing; but collaboration with enemies is the worst form of treachery and betrayal.

There’s a new book (Collaborating with the Enemy) that sets out to show that we can collaborate with people we don’t agree with, probably don’t like, and might not even trust. We can collaborate with the enemy, without being seen as a “collaborator”. The book was written from the perspective of conflict resolution and peace negotiations, with the aim of providing transferable lessons for the business community, but we’ve been struck by just how much divorcing couples could learn from these precepts.


We don’t have to agree on the solution!

This is one of the critical teachings of the book – and the biggest surprise. We don’t even have to agree on the problem. Conventional collaboration describes a process of getting to agreement around a common issue and its resolution. In fact the starting point is agreeing the problem, and many hours are spent in this pursuit, before any talk of solution planning can begin. It’s a radical departure to think that we don’t have to agree on the problem. We can throw all the blame-casting out the window. It doesn’t matter if one partner perceives the problem to be finances and the other thinks it concerns childcare. What matters is agreeing what to do next. We can do this even if we don’t see the problem in the same way as the other party. People may agree on the steps to take but for very different reasons or motivations.


Stretch collaboration

Kahane talks about “stretch collaboration”. Stretch collaboration, just like physical stretching, involves both flexibility and some discomfort. It requires us to abandon the illusion of control and “stretch” in three dimensions:

  1. Stretch away from a focus on collective goals (these may not exist) and embrace conflict and connection both within and beyond the pair.
  2. Stretch away from insisting on agreement about the problem or the solution and move towards exploring different perspectives. This is particularly important where the welfare of children is involved.
  3. Stretch away from a focus on changing what the other person does, and focus on what we can do to change. This is particularly difficult in a domestic situation where people are hurting, but it can be very liberating to stop trying to change the other person and concentrate on the only person we can control: ourselves.


The “other”

Kahane has coined another phrase that captures a common behaviour when dealing with people who are different from us: “enemyfying”. We think and act as if the person we are dealing with is our enemy; they are the cause of our problems and they mean us harm. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where this is more apt than in an adversarial divorce. ‘If only “that person” would change.’ Kahane describes the feeling of lightness that emerges when we realise that we are the only person we can control, and the only change we can effect is the change we ourselves will make.

Stop wasting time and energy thinking about what the other person should do and think instead about what we should do. This is the letting-go of the illusion of control (it’s an illusion because we never really have control over others, unless we are in a position of power over them, and then we are not collaborating but forcing).


Listen for possibilities

One of the key tools in stretch collaboration is listening, which is at the heart of most arbitration efforts. Kahane describes four listening techniques: downloading, debating, dialoguing and “presencing” – the last describing a state of being fully present and listening not just from our own perspective but from the standpoint of the whole. Only the last two truly seek to understand the perspectives and opinions of the other. Downloading and debating merely reinforce the position already held by the speaker; they don’t allow for new possibilities to emerge.

Presencing moves beyond the ideas of an individual and pays attention to the larger entity – in the case of a divorcing couple, the family. All four modes of listening have their place; but it is important to understand their purposes and be able to employ the relevant mode at the appropriate time. To allow possibilities to surface, at least some of the time must be spent in presencing mode.


Step into the game

Finally, we must stop focusing on what the other needs to change; this is a distraction from what we really need to do – which is to figure out what we must do differently to bring about the change we want to see. We must be a co-creator of the situation, not a director or spectator, and certainly not a victim.

Collaborating with enemy and getting to friends is not easy. It often feels much easier to demand change of the other person. But that is not change we can influence; and so we set ourselves up for frustration, resentment and anger when it doesn’t happen. We can only change ourselves, no one else. Ultimately the entire family unit will reap the benefits of collaborating with the enemy and reaching the stage of moving forward to a new beginning – without rancour and with the interests of everyone involved in mind.


We’re here to help with divorce

We can support you through divorce proceedings and help you move on to the next stage of your life as quickly as possible. If you would like to talk to someone in confidence, give Simon a call on 087 550 2740 or 076 116 0623 or contact us.

SD Law & Associates are experts in divorce and family law.

For more information on divorce in South Africa, see Types of Divorce in South Africa and for more information on getting to friends, see Divorcing with Dignity.


Buy Collaborating with the Enemy book

Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don t Agree with or Like or Trust by Adam Kahane is published by Berrett-Koehler and is available from and as an e-book.

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