I just returned from vacation with my wife and kids and it reminded me that we apply our negotiation skills with family members every day. While we don’t consider these formal “negotiations” like in business, many experts – including myself – view the process broadly as including any communications in which parties attempt to satisfy mutual interests.
So what strategies work effectively in the family context?
1. Remember the Long-Term Relationship
Avoid competitive, hard-nosed brinksmanship negotiations. Instead, remember you want to spend the rest of your life in close proximity with this person. If you think you might regret making a certain statement, don’t do it. And if the temperature in the room gets too hot and you or your family member appear ready to lose your cool, institute a cooling off period.
Of course, this is easy to say but difficult to do. But it’s critical.
2. Listen, Understand and be Present
Don’t underestimate the value of just listening and understanding. When my wife describes a problem for me, my instinct is to try to solve it. But as my wife will often remind me, that may not be what she wants or needs. Instead, she may simply need you to listen and empathize.
And focus intently on the person speaking and be present. In our increasingly multi-tasking world, it seems easy to listen while simultaneously checking e-mail or texts. Don’t. Doing so not only communicates that they are less important than the e-mail or text, but you may miss some very important messages they are sending you.
3. Dig Deep for the True 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 that 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.
Find the true interests involved and positively focus on the future, not negatively on the past.
4. Identify the Feelings and Emotions Involved
How many of your most difficult family discussions were really about anger, disappointment, shame or some other feeling or emotion? In Difficult Conversations, the authors suggest you explicitly address these by identifying everyone’s feelings and seeking to better understand them.
Ask “how do we feel about this, and why?” Then explore these in a non-threatening way.
5. Find and Use Objective Standards
A great way to lower the emotional level in many negotiations – especially highly charged family ones – is to find an objective standard that can lead to a mutually acceptable solution.
Standards that work well here, especially with kids, include precedent (your older brother received the same allowance), 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!
Published January 6, 2011 The Arizona Republic