The Art of Negotiation

Have you ever had a discussion with yourself about when to go to bed? The word "negotiation" may conjure thoughts of hostage standoffs and high-stakes labor disputes, but there's a more quotidian brand of conflict resolution that enters daily life at nearly every turn. Negotiation, in fact, doesn't necessarily even require another person.

Mary P. Rowe, an ombudsman at MIT, encourages people to think of negotiation as "all interactions between two or more points of view; it's possible to negotiate with yourself."

Negotiations crop up on the way to decisions big and small—when to fill the gas tank, how to spend money, who picks up the kids, when to have sex, whether to get married.

Granted, forging a compromise over which DVD to watch isn't the same as signing the Camp David Accords, but regular human beings can benefit from the same skills world leaders use to solve problems. And best of all, getting better at reaching agreement is pretty painless.

Principled negotiation is a strategy that seeks to move both parties away from polarizing and usually entrenched positions, and into the realm of interests. It asks how both parties can get their interests satisfied while keeping their relationship strong. Negotiating well means neither party need feel cheated, manipulated, or taken advantage of.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Psychologist Daniel L. Shapiro, associate director of the Harvard Negotiation Project, has trained Palestinian and Israeli negotiators. He taught members of the Serbian parliament how to negotiate. Unfortunately, he reports, none of that has given him any additional clout at home.

When he was dating his wife, Mia, a painful imbroglio erupted after he asked her to watch his apartment while he was away. He returned to discover she had redecorated. Gone was his "cool" construction lantern. The card table he ate on had a new flowered tablecloth.

"In truth, it looked better," but Shapiro was incensed. The trouble, he recognized later, was that Mia had inadvertently trampled his autonomy. That turns out to be one of five "core concerns" his research identifies as critical in creating disputes and finding resolution. He defines autonomy as a person's freedom to make decisions for himself.

The other core concerns are appreciation, or having actions acknowledged; affiliation, being treated as a colleague; status, feeling that others respect one's standing; and having roles and activities that are fulfilling. Cross one of the needs and conflict arises. Respect them, and compromise is around the corner.

The most important element of effective negotiation, says Rowe, is preparation, preparation, preparation. She recommends drafting a letter that includes an objective statement of the facts, explains how those facts were injurious, and outlines what the writer thinks should happen next. Even if the letter is never sent, writing it can help clarify what is needed to repair any damage.

If there is not enough time for a letter, even a 10-minute break from a highly charged situation allows murky issues to be thought through and real needs to come to light. Advises Shapiro: "Take those core concerns and write them on a piece of paper. Figure out which of them are being violated for you and for the other person."

Listen First

"There's a saying among negotiators that whoever talks the most during a negotiation loses," says Bobby Covic, author of Everything's Negotiable! Being the first one to listen is crucial to building trust. Just getting the listening part of a negotiation right can satisfy many of the core concerns Shapiro cites.

However, listening—really paying attention to what the other person has to say—is hard. Gregorio Billikopf, a negotiator for the University of California system, offers several good listening practices:

  • Sit Down

    This signals to the other person that time will be spent to hear their side. Never ask someone to talk if there isn't enough time to listen.

  • Find Common Ground

    Approach the other person by talking about a neutral topic of mutual interest—say, baseball or knitting. It helps both parties relax and starts the flow of conversation. Transition to the problem by saying, "I want to talk about an issue important to me, but first I want to hear what you have to say about it."

  • Move In

    Leaning in to the conversation indicates interest. Head nods also help in letting the other side know their thoughts are being followed. But constant nodding or saying "right" over and over will seem insincere.

  • Keep Your Cool

    Experts agree on ground rules for communicating problems—no yelling and no walking away.

  • Be Brief

    Don't go on and on, says Billikopf. He also suggests avoiding words such as "we disagree," a phrase that throws a person to the defensive.

  • Forget Neutrality

    Trying to control your emotions usually backfires, says Shapiro. The other person can read anger and frustration in a wrinkled forehead or a tense mouth, and negative emotions ruin negotiations. Instead, mine the situation to find whatever positive emotions can be brought to the table—like letting a spouse who's fallen behind on his end of the chores know that his hard work is admirable and the extra money he's earning is appreciated.

  • Avoid Empty Threats

    Intimidation can be powerful—but use it sparingly. Empty threats will diminish the other person's respect for you.

  • Don't Yield

    Caving on important issues may seem noble, says Billikopf, but it ruins a relationship. "You're not asking the other person to consider your point of view," he says. Instead, look for compromises. Compromise is like stretching. Stop doing it and pretty soon there's no way to bend at all.

The Gender Gap

Ask a man to describe negotiation and he's likely to compare it to a ball game or a wrestling match. Women, on the other hand, find it more like going to the dentist.

By a factor of 2.5, more women than men feel a "great deal of apprehension" about negotiating, reports economist Linda Babcock, of Carnegie Mellon. Women go to great lengths to avoid the bargaining process—paying almost $1,400 more to avoid negotiating the price of a car. (That may explain why 63 percent of those who buy cars made by Saturn, a company that promises a no-haggle price, are women.) But "failing to negotiate her salary just once will cost a woman $500,000 over the course of her career," she says.

Babcock suggests three things for women to get more of what they want:

  • Commit

    "Given that 20 percent of adult women say they never negotiate at all, the most important thing to do is to decide to use negotiation in the first place," she says.

  • Practice

    Negotiate little things, even crazy items that are never bargained for, like the price of fish at the fish market. As with most behaviors, she says, it gets easier the more you do it.

  • Get to 'No'

    If you never hear "no," when you negotiate, you haven't asked for enough.

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.