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Your idea of a great Sunday is to rise with the sun for a long run. Your partner, however, has other ideas. His notion of a proper Sunday involves sleeping late and enjoying a leisurely brunch over the Sunday paper. You’ve been doing it his way for months, but you’re starting to resent having to neglect a core value for what seems to you like his whim. Finally, you decide it’s time to reclaim your Sundays.

Freeze the frame: Here’s a situation involving competing values and priorities, some version of which we all routinely face. Life is a series of values-driven decisions, most of which involve other people. And, sometimes, that means conflict.

Learning negotiation skills can help. Most people think negotiation involves smoke-filled rooms and manipulative gamesmanship, but it’s really about finding common solutions — a skill everyone can develop. Best of all, it doesn’t mean you abandon your beliefs. On the contrary, by learning how to negotiate, you can better stand up for yourself and your values.

Learning to Listen

The first principle of negotiating is to give up the idea of fighting to win. That sounds easy enough, but in the heat of an argument, most of us go for the jugular.

In the world of mediation, this adversarial approach is known as “positional” negotiating, because you stake out your position (“I want to run on Sunday”) and fight for it. This typically leads to “the two-dimensional idea that their gain is my loss, and vice versa,” says Jim Melamed, cofounder and CEO of, a web site for mediation professionals. In an ongoing relationship, however, when one party loses, so does the other. If your partner is forced to give up his Sunday morning routine, it’s likely he’ll be resentful and, consciously or not, set about sabotaging your
fitness plans — or at least your fun.

Successful negotiators work to understand the motives, fears and desires beneath positions. Melamed suggests simply asking the other person about his or her motives as a way to get past them. A statement such as, “Tell me more about why you like to sleep in on Sundays” is an invitation to move beyond the emotions of conflict and better understand what’s fueling them.

Once you start asking questions, the real work begins. “The most persuasive people are those who know how to listen,” says William Ury, PhD, director of the Global Negotiation Project at Harvard and author of The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes. “For one thing, listening is a sign of respect,” he explains. “Moreover, if you know what drives the person you’re negotiating with, you have a better ability to influence them. Focus on their problem and figure out how to make it easy for them.”

By asking open-ended questions and listening to the answers, you can find solutions that meet both parties’ interests. You might discover, for example, that your partner’s Sunday morning “laziness” is simply a desire to spend more quiet time with you. If that’s the case, you can work to find solutions. The simple phrase, “How can we best.. .?” (as in, “How can we best make room on Sundays for both fitness and spending time together?) works wonders, Melamed says.

Recognizing Emotions

Most disagreements contain at least some level of anger, mistrust and other painful emotions. Indeed, an entire field of negotiation research focuses not on technique, but on managing emotions.

“Negotiation is like a yin yang,” says Daniel Shapiro, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Harvard Law School and associate director of the Harvard Negotiation Project. “Half of it connects with reason and problem solving and the other half is dealing with people and their emotions.”

Shapiro, coauthor of Beyond Reason: Using Emotions As You Negotiate, explains that beneath the anxiety and other negative emotions so many people feel during disagreements lie several basic emotional needs, or “core concerns,” that we all share. For example, he says, everyone needs to feel appreciated, and most people want the autonomy to make their own decisions.

So begin your negotiations by working to meet the other person’s core concerns. For example, in a work meeting, says Shaprio: “You might hate everything about this person, but they’re taking the time to talk to you, and you can acknowledge them by appreciating that fact.”

Likewise, a simple word or two at the outset of a negotiation can radically shift roles. If you sit down with your boss and ask him to “problem solve” with you, for example, it can break down the hierarchy, Shapiro explains.

Practice Makes Perfect

When you know you’re going to be negotiating — asking for a raise, for example, or confronting a neighbor about his wayward puppy — you can prepare for the encounter. Life coach Cheryl Richardson recommends writing a script of the looming conversation and rehearsing the interaction with a friend. Preparation can help you find your way to language that is both honest and respectful.

If you find yourself feeling more contempt than curiosity about the person with whom you’re negotiating, or if your anger is clouding your desire to find a solution, it might be wise to call a time-out. You can always opt out of the conversation for a few minutes or even a few days.

Be patient. It can take some time to abandon old behaviors and put new techniques to work. Simply recognizing what you’re feeling when you’re feeling it and then communicating that to someone else can be challenging.

Practice on strangers; the emotional stakes are low. Dealing with a crabby grocery checkout clerk? What can you do to improve the interaction? In time, you’ll be comfortable negotiating even the most delicate issues with the people who really matter in your life, and you’ll reap the rewards of more fulfilling relationships.

Finding Common Ground

  1. You can use the wisdom of the negotiating pros to solve personal conflicts. Just keep in mind these key principles:
  2. Be an ally, not an adversary. Negotiation isn’t war — it’s an attempt to arrive at agreements that everyone can support. Focus on how you can work together and find common solutions. Use “problem-solving statements,” like, “What is the best way for us to. . .?” suggests mediator Jim Melamed.
  3. Don’t grandstand. Negotiating with somebody in front of an audience — at a meeting or family gathering, for instance — is tricky business. Too easily, a negotiation turns into a performance.
  4. Be honest about the process. If you need a break, take it. If someone is acting like a cutthroat, call it out. “Be willing to name the truth,” says life coach Cheryl Richardson. “If you need to shift the conversation, just tell the truth: ‘This isn’t my style; can we find another way?’”

This article has been updated. It originally appeared at “Everyday Diplomancy” in the October 2007 issue of Experience Life.

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