Take Softer Approach When Negotiating with Family

April 4, 2003We got married on March 16, and we just returned from our honeymoon.

Now, I’m told, a whole new type of negotiations will begin. Spousal negotiations. In a few years, another new type of negotiation also may start: negotiating with kids.

Family negotiations, without a doubt, occupy a pretty unique place in the negotiation world. Many family strategies, though, also apply to negotiations within long-term business relationships.

So how should you negotiate in these situations? Try my top 10 family negotiation strategies.

1. Remember the long-term relationship involved. Avoid the competitive, hard-nosed, brinksmanship negotiations that you might utilize with a used car salesman. Instead, remember that you want to spend the rest of your life in very close proximity with this person.

Keep this in mind as you deal with the inevitable conflicts that arise. If you think you might later regret taking a certain position or making a certain statement, don’t do it. That’s your relationship conscience talking.

2. Listen and understand. Don’t underestimate the value of just listening and understanding. A friend of mine is a great problem-solver. In many ways his business success is based on his excellent skills in this area.

The biggest challenge in his marriage? Whenever his wife shares a problem with him, he tries to solve it. But often that’s not what she wants or needs. She just wants him to listen and empathize. He’s had to learn to do this.

3. Dig deep for the true issues and interests involved. In “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most” by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen, the authors distinguish between three “conversations” within every difficult communication: the What Happened Conversation, the Feelings Conversation, and the Identity Conversation.

In the What Happened Conversation, parties often focus on what happened and discuss it in terms of “who’s right, who meant what, and who’s to blame.”

The problem is, focusing on right and wrong, assuming what someone “really” intended, and playing the blame game, frequently leads everyone down a negative path. Alternatively, the authors suggest we explore our perceptions, interpretations and values underlying the issues; stop assuming we know the other’s intentions; and focus on how to avoid similar future problems.

Dig deep to find the true interests and issues involved. Then, change how you discuss them and positively focus on the future, not negatively on the past.

4. Identify the feelings and emotions involved. How many of your most difficult discussions with a family member were really about anger, disappointment, shame, or some other feeling or emotion?

Sometimes, this is the core problem. In “Difficult Conversations,” the authors suggest you explicitly address the feelings question.

How? Identify everyone’s feelings and seek to better understand them. Perhaps discuss them openly. Then manage them if you can.

This can be tough. But it’s worth it. In your next disagreement with your spouse, ask yourself “How do I feel about this, and why?” Then ask your spouse how he or she feels, and why? That will get you started.

5. Consider its impact on you and your identity. Major disagreements with loved ones often involve – at a deep level – our sense of identity and self-worth. Called the “identity conversation” in “Difficult Conversations,” this can be the hardest area to explore.

Why? Because our self-esteem appears to be at stake. How can you identify this, and what can you do about it?

As noted in “Difficult Conversations,” the “biggest factor that contributes to a vulnerable identity (and that signals the presence of an identity issue), is all-or-nothing thinking: I’m either competent or incompetent, good or evil, worthy of love or not.”

When you see this in others, or when you recognize it in yourself, put the issues into some long-term perspective and find the right balance. All-or-nothing thinking, especially about identity issues, often presents a false choice. Avoid it.

6. Put yourself in their shoes. My wife had been dreaming of our wedding day for her entire life. Frankly, I hadn’t really thought about the details (an inside or outside ceremony, a long or short aisle, etc.) until we got engaged.

As we began to discuss these details, and evaluated their financial impacts, I consciously tried to see these issues through her eyes. It made a big difference.

7. Find and use objective standards. A great way to lower the emotional level of many negotiations is to find an objective standard that can lead to a mutually acceptable solution. Since family negotiations often generate high emotions, objective standards can be great problem-solvers.

Standards that work well here, especially with kids, include precedent (your older brother received the same allowance), an appeal to the market (none of your friends can cross the street alone yet), policy (everyone must finish their vegetables before leaving the table) and expert opinion (the dentist told you to brush your teeth after every meal if you want healthy teeth).

Of course, expect your kids to start using these with you, too.

8. If the temperature gets too hot, institute a cooling-off period. Almost everyone has lost their temper at one point and said something to a loved one that they regret. If you see this coming, take a break. It’s easy to say, but often tough to do. Yet it can make or break a relationship.

9. Men and women communicate differently. John Gray has made a ton from his bestseller “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.” While I was skeptical at first, I now am convinced that most men and women tend to process information differently. It’s worth your time to explore these differences in Gray’s books or in others.

10. Don’t always try to do it yourself.
Finally, some seemingly intractable family negotiation issues may require outside help. Don’t be embarrassed to ask for help from friends, parents or the professionals who have helped countless others in similar situations.

One more thing. Don’t forget to say “I love you” every day at least. After all, that’s why you’re in the relationship in the first place.

© 2003 Latz Negotiation Institute. All rights reserved.