Negotiation Strategies Especially for Couples (Expert Advice)

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By Ellyn Bader, Ph.D.

Editor’s Summary:Many people are afraid of conflict because they do not know how to negotiate. This article explains why you should learn to negotiate with your partner and the skills you need to learn how to negotiate effectively. What follows is a clear step-by-step set of guidelines designed to improve your negotiation skills with your partner.

These guidelines will help you avoid the three most common negotiating mistakes couples make: 1) Failure to prepare before the negotiation with your partner; 2) Caving in too quickly to avoid tension or to keep the peace; and 3) Stubbornly pushing too hard for your own solution.

Why Learn to Negotiate with your Partner?
Conflict is inevitable for growth in your relationship. Many people are frightened of conflict because they can’t negotiate. Once you learn to negotiate you won’t be so afraid of conflict. Good negotiation leads to acceptable solutions that work for both of you and will strengthen your relationship. Your communication skills automatically improve as you develop good negotiating skills.

The Difference Between Negotiation For Couples and Other Negotiations
Negotiation with your partner can feel especially risky, because the amount of emotional self disclosure required is much higher for couples than in business. Also, the result may have life-altering consequences (like negotiating where to live).

Skills Required For Negotiating With Your Partner
Effective negotiation for complex problems requires lots of openness about yourself, curiosity about your partner’s issues and emotional risk. It also takes listening really well!

Some Things Cannot Be Negotiated
Core values, integrity, spirituality, feelings, attitudes and trust can not be negotiated. Do your best to separate interests and concerns from values. You can negotiate your interests but not your core values or integrity. For example, it doesn’t work to say, “I’ll give up my spiritual beliefs for you.”

The Only Things You Can Really Negotiate Are Behavior And Decisions
You can negotiate what action someone will take and when they will do it, or you can negotiate a solution to a problem of disagreement.

How To Prepare To Negotiate
Ask yourself how you aspire to be during the negotiation. For example, calm, open, flexible, honest, understanding, curious. By following the guidelines you set for yourself, you will more easily focus on a successful outcome. This is an often overlooked aspect of negotiation. Staying conscious of your own guidelines will help keep you centered and focused. Write your guidelines on a piece of paper and keep glancing at them during the negotiation. You will come across like an experienced negotiator simply by staying consistent with your own guidelines.

Before you start the negotiation, quietly reflect on the following questions:

What do I want? Why do I want it and why is it important? How important is this to me?
To get what I want, what will I need to do and what will my partner need to do?
If I get most of what I want what is the positive and negative effect on my partner?
How can I make it easier for my partner to say yes?
However, it may be difficult for my partner to give me most of what I want because _________________________________________________________________.
I may be able to increase the benefits to my partner by _________________________.
I may be able to decrease the downside to my partner by ______________________.
Add other relevant information that has not been suggested here.

You don’t need to answer every question and complete every statement sequentially in a dialogue with your partner. But as you get mentally clear about these issues it will make it easier to conversationally express your concerns and desires.

Start By Stating the Area of Disagreement
It is important to describe the issue as disagreement instead of as a problem. It is very difficult to say “The problem is ___________” without blaming your partner or yourself. This actual or implied blame leads to a defensive reaction from one or both parties. The negotiation then begins to slip like a house built on loose gravel.

State the disagreement in the form, “We seem to disagree about _______________.”
Then take turns expressing what your concerns and desires are about the disagreement.

Describe Concerns About the Subject
One person goes first and expresses all their concerns while the other listens without rebutting or defending anything. The response is simply to recap and check for understanding. It may also be necessary to ask questions for clarity.

Avoid leading questions that sound like Perry Mason, “Did it ever occur to you that…?”

Brainstorm Solutions
After each person has expressed all their concerns and desires, and each of you feels understood, then it is time for brainstorming solutions. Think of several possible solutions.

One partner proposes a solution
Make the suggested proposal in the following format: Honey, what I suggest is _______________________________________________.
This suggestion works for me because ____________________________________.
This suggestion might work for you because _______________________________.

The Rationale For This “Formula”
It encourages being a good self advocate. Simultaneously it forces you to consider your partner’s perspective and helps prevent the possibility of only stubbornly pushing your own desires.

The Other Partner Responds
If the partner agrees with the whole suggestion, then recap why it works.
If the partner does not agree then start with recapping the part that does work.
The part that does work is ________________________________.
The part that doesn’t work is ______________________________.
So my alternative suggestion is ____________________________.
This suggestion works for me because _______________________.
And it might work for you because __________________________.
Add value to your offers. Keep finding ways to make it easier for your partner to say yes.

Remember – this negotiation is only an experiment. Nobody is locked into a permanent solution. It is only for a period of time to see what if anything needs adjusting.

Repeat suggestions until agreement is reached.

Take Action
If action is appropriate, decide who will do what by when. Decide for how long you will try this solution.

After the action phase come back and evaluate the results. If things are fine, continue for another block of time.

Round Two, Three, Etc.
If it didn’t work out as well as hoped, each person begins by saying, “Honey, it didn’t work the way I hoped, but here is what I could have done differently.” Don’t start by stating what your partner should have done differently.

Then repeat appropriate steps above.

Don’t be discouraged if your first attempts at this new negotiation strategy are awkward. This is challenging territory for most couples. Keep trying, and you’ll improve. If you’d like more help on the subject, consider attending the weekend couples’ workshop “Coming from your Heart” to learn this approach along with a lot of other practical, innovative material for couples. It’s definitely easier to learn when you see demonstrations and role-plays. You’d even get to practice with a therapist helping you stay on track.

Good luck, and may all your disagreements lead you to more lively collaboration.

Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., and her husband Dr. Peter Pearson, are founders of The Couples Institute in Menlo Park, CA. Authors, speakers, and therapists, they have been featured on over 50 radio and TV programs including “The Today Show” and “CBS Early Morning News.” For information on, or to register for, workshops, visit The Couples Institute

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