How to Negotiate Your Way To A Better Relationship With Just About Anyone

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To have a successful relationship of any kind – whether it’s with a romantic partner, a friend, a colleague, or anyone else, good negotiation skills are an absolute must. No matter how much you love, like, or respect someone, weak negotiation skills will eventually erode any relationship and threaten the positive foundation on which it may originally have been built.  That’s sad, because it’s completely avoidable!

The term “negotiation” may seem complicated, and may conjure up images of corporate lawyers or sports agents, but in reality, the concept is very simple. For our purposes here, “negotiation” can be easily defined as the act of attempting to resolve everyday conflict, using habits and strategies one hopes will be most conducive to achieving the desired outcome.

Think about it: You negotiate many times a day, every day of your life, possibly without even realizing it!  Stop and think about a recent conflict you tried to resolve by negotiating a solution with a spouse, friend, or colleague.  How well do you think you handled it?

If you think you could have done better (and really, we can all do better – even those of us who are professional resolvers of conflict!), read on; I’ll tell you how you can do better next time. But before you can sharpen your skills, you need to understand the biggest mistakes people make in interpersonal negotiations. Chances are, you’re making at least one of them.

The Four Most Common “Bad Strategies” in Negotiation

People have all kinds of strategies for managing the conflict in their lives. Some of these strategies work well, others work OK, and others are downright ineffective.  The problem is that most people default to the same approaches over and over again, never giving any thought to whether they actually work.

Here are four common approaches to conflict that are just plain wrong.   Are you guilty of any of them?

1.  Avoiding. Some people habitually avoid conflict. They just can’t handle the idea of anyone being upset with them, and/or don’t know how to speak up for themselves without getting into a fight, so they just sweep their problems under the rug, hoping that the conflict will magically go away.  As I explained in a previous post, however, this strategy only makes things worse, as it can lead to resentment and internalized anger, which ultimately comes to a head, with often-disastrous results.

2.  Competing. Other people are competitive; they have to win every argument no matter what. This is problematic because competitive people often don’t stop to consider the damage they are doing to their relationships as a result of having to win at any cost.  People who step on others to get what they want may be “successful” in terms of achieving their desired outcomes (for example, climbing to the top of the corporate ladder), but they can ultimately wind up feeling depressed, friendless and alone – a steep price to pay for “success”.

3.  Accommodating. Then there are “accommodators”, who attempt to speak up for themselves by raising an issue that’s troubling them, but ultimately back down, “resolving” the conflict by doing what the other person wants in order to keep the peace. They are pleasers, and while they differ from avoiders in approach (because they do at least attempt to start the conversation), the end result is similar – they are afraid to see the conflict through to resolution, so their needs go unmet in favour of the other person’s.  Accommodators often smile on the outside, but simmer in a stew of rage, pain, frustration, and resentment on the inside.

4.  Compromising. Finally, there are “compromisers”, whose approach to conflict is to suggest meeting in the middle of what both people want. This sounds good in theory, but the kinds of solutions that result from this approach can be arbitrary instead of principled, and may leave either party (or both) feeling dissatisfied.

In a nutshell, avoiders and accommodators value keeping the peace more than they value having their own needs met, while competitive types only care about getting what they want, and couldn’t care less about the relationship with the other person involved in the conflict. Compromisers are attempting to strike a fair balance between the “result” and the “relationship” with a “meet in the middle” approach.  Categories are by nature extreme;  people fit these descriptions to varying degrees, and many are hybrids, perhaps depending on the circumstances (for example, competitive at work and avoidant at home).

Unfortunately, none of these conflict resolution styles really works effectively. That’s because in order for a relationship to be a healthy one, conflict needs to be resolved in a way that strips it of emotion and treats it as a mutual problem to be solved for the benefit of both parties, and for the benefit of the relationship in general.

In other words, instead of the “win-lose” or “lose-lose” solutions which so often occur with competing, avoiding, accommodating, or compromising, effective negotiators have the capacity to look for the “win-win”.

In the conflict resolution literature, people who have mastered the art of “win-win” negotiations are commonly referred to as Collaborative Negotiators.

How to be a Collaborative Negotiator

Collaborative Negotiators value both the relationship and the result, and try to strike the appropriate balance between the two in their negotiations.  But where they differ from compromisers (who also try to do this) is that their negotiations are interest-based.

Interest-based negotiation is very different from “meeting in the middle”; this strategy results in the meaningful resolution of conflict, because the process leaves both parties feeling satisfied with (or at least truly at peace with) the outcome, as well as respected throughout the negotiation process.

Read that again, and be very clear. Interest-based negotiation is about the process itself.  It is how you conduct the negotiation – both in terms of tone and content of the discussions – that matters most in terms of the likelihood of a good outcome.

The concept of “interest-based negotiation” was widely introduced in the 1991 conflict resolution “bible” Getting To Yes, by Fisher, Ury, and Patton (as an aside, this book truly awakened me to the reasons people get stuck in conflict, and singlehandedly led to my decision, over a decade ago, to leave the practice of law and devote the rest of my professional life to practicing in the field of alternative dispute resolution.  If you want to take your negotiation skills to a higher level, you should definitely read it!).

Why You Get Stuck in Conflict – And How to Get “Unstuck”!

When people are stuck in conflict, it’s usually because they’re fighting over “positions”. This is the opposite of interest-based negotiation.  Positional fighting means getting locked in to wanting what you want, and stopping at nothing to prove that they are right and the other person is wrong.

Let’s take the example of Jim, a middle-aged dad, who is railing against Brad, a minor league hockey coach, who committed the unforgivable “crime” of cutting Jim’s son, Matt, an objectively talented player, from the team during tryouts, thereby ruining Matt’s chances of getting a hockey scholarship to a university.

Jim is convinced that the coach was biased against his son for personal reasons, and that Matt was not given a fair chance. Jim is adamant that Matt deserved to be on the team; everyone says so, and Jim will stop at nothing to achieve that outcome.  He has even retained a lawyer, who has written a nasty letter vowing to sue Brad and the league commissioner for intentional infliction of emotional suffering if Brad doesn’t back down.  Brad, a principled man himself, will not back down, and the harder Jim fights, the more firmly Brad digs in his heels.

Irreconcilable Positions?

What we have here is a classic impasse – a situation in which two positions are seemingly irreconcilable. But are they?

Jim’s position is that his son must be allowed on this team and Brad’s position is that there’s no way in hell he will allow this man to tell him what to do. It’s not only a matter of principle for both, it’s also a matter of ego and pride.  The harder each person fights, the harder the other person will fight back.  There are only three ways to resolve this impasse:  One is that a third party (arbitrator or judge) decides whose rights win out – an expensive, time-consuming, and risky exercise.  The second way to resolve this conflict is that either Brad or Jim backs down – but that’s unlikely here.  Fortunately, however, there’s a third way, and that’s to use interest-based negotiation.

How Interest-Based Negotiation Works

In interest-based negotiation, the parties look behind the positions to expose the underlying interests.  An “interest” is the underlying reason why the person is taking a particular position. A collaborative negotiator understands that breaking an impasse is only possible when positions can be set aside and the underlying interests can be clearly elicited, exposed, and framed as part of a mutual problem to be solved.

Jim’s position is that his son needs to be let back on the team.  But what are his interests?  They may include:  Protecting his son’s feelings, ensuring that Matt gets to play hockey, wanting to help his son get a scholarship in order to access an education that he might not otherwise be able to afford, and ensuring that he, Jim, is treated with respect.

In the case of Coach Brad, the position is, “There’s no way in hell I’m going to let that a**hole tell me what to do!”  But his interests, as a coach, are:  Having the strongest possible team, having a great time coaching hockey, working with talented players who respect his authority, and, probably, avoiding helicopter parents who are trying to take over and undermine that authority.

Hopefully, you can see that while the two men’s positions can’t be reconciled, their interests probably can!

Sometimes people get so caught up in defending themselves and/or fighting for their positions and principles that they are truly unable to consider, let alone see, the other party’s point of view. They’d rather believe that the other person is unreasonable, irrational, stupid, or downright evil.  But the best negotiators don’t do these things.  They have highly developed interpersonal skills, treat their “adversaries” with respect, and look for mutually acceptable solutions.  That’s what interest-based negotiation is, and that’s what good mediators do to help people whose own weak negotiation skills have led them into hostile territory.

If I were mediating this case, I’d encourage Jim and Brad to create a “mutual problem statement” by identifying their underlying interests. Common (or at least compatible) interests are always there if you know where to look for them; some people just need help to stop fighting long enough to see them.  So, what might Jim and Brad’s compatible interests be?

Jim and Brad’s Compatible Interests – The Key to Resolving the Conflict

In mediation, it might become apparent that Brad actually wanted Matt on the team, but cut him because Jim had been such an overbearing thorn in Brad’s side in the previous season that he couldn’t take another year of Jim questioning his every move and undermining his authority in front of the whole team. If this were the case, then the coach’s decision to cut Matt was a classic example of conflict avoidance.

Here, avoidance was a poor strategy because it deprived a deserving player of the opportunity to play, and hurt a young boy’s self-confidence; as well, it led to an escalation of conflict and the threat of a lawsuit. It created more problems than it solved.

Once we know what’s really going on, we can move to the next stage of conflict resolution, which is creating a mutual problem statement.  A mutual problem statement is a question which frames the conflict in terms of appropriate solutions that meet both parties’ interests.  Here, a good mutual problem statement might look like this:  “How can we get Matt back to playing hockey at the appropriate level while also drawing reasonable boundaries around Jim’s conduct in the arena, so that Brad’s status as coach isn’t threatened?”  If both are truly motivated to have Matt play, it is to be hoped that the men will find a way to deal with the real problem so that it can happen.  Now we’re actually getting somewhere productive!

The Path to Resolution

By clearly identifying the interests underlying the conflict, and by creating this mutual problem statement, the parties are much more likely to generate concrete solutions to their problem.  One example:  Matt will be allowed back on the team on a trial basis, on the condition that Jim agrees to sit in a part of the arena out of Brad’s earshot, so there can be no interference with Brad’s ability to focus on his coaching.  In the alternative, Matt’s mother could be the one to bring him to games, or the coach could find Matt an equally appealing team to play on as an alternative to this one.

Whatever the solution is, the point is that where there is a will to solve a problem, there is a way. Conversely, where there is a will only to keep fighting, solutions will always be elusive.

Negotiating More Effectively Each and Every Day

Next time you’re involved in a conflict, take a big step back. Ask yourself if either you, or the other person, is getting stuck on positions.  If so, try to understand the interests which underlie the positions.  What is really important to each of you here?  Is there a solution to the problem which balances both sets of interests fairly?  Is there more than one solution that can achieve this?  Generally, there is.  All you have to do is ask the right questions; when you learn to do this, the answers will, in turn, reveal themselves to you with incredible clarity.

Of course, all of this is easier said than done, and most people need lots of help to improve their “conflict literacy”. That’s why it’s my mission to keep sharing these ideas; they are not taught in school, unfortunately, but everyone should have access to them! If you have the right foundation and the opportunity to put ideas into practice, anything is possible.  Knowledge is power; in this context, knowledge will also result in better relationships with just about anyone!

Until next time,

Rosanna

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