How to Negotiate, Get Better Results, and Improve Your Relationships

Photo: Toa Heftiba

My wife Becky loves to sing. She’s taken voice lessons for 10 years, and I’m so impressed that she’s increased her vocal range — by over an octave! (Her secret? It’s the one that Mozart and Stephen King have used.) And she gets great joy from singing operettas, which means a lot of rehearsals and then some performances.

The conflict

The last few weeks have been difficult for me, what with depression and the recent death of my mother, and Becky has been gone a lot because of her upcoming performance. Now, I don’t believe that you should look to your spouse to meet all your needs —that’s a prescription for disaster — but I did need some extra help. I knew she already had a role for the next operetta, and I dreaded being an opera widow while I was still struggling. I told her how I felt and I made a big ask: I need more of your presence in my life right now.

At her age, Becky doesn’t have that many years left being able to sing at performance quality, and I know how much it means to her. I asked, we argued, and there was resentment in the air on both sides. Then Becky said a very wise thing: “We’ve gotten to a bad place and it’s not going to get any better. Let’s talk again in the morning. Maybe we’ll think of something.”

The resolution

The old adage says, “Never go to sleep angry at each other,” but I think that following this advice depends on the situation. In our case, we had stopped arguing while there was still goodwill; that’s the best time to stop.

And it turns out I was right. The next morning, an obvious solution popped into my head: compromise. Part of her contribution to the opera company she sings with is making costumes. This is something else she really throws herself into, but it’s very time-consuming. So I thought that a good compromise would be for her to be in the next production (she didn’t want to give that up) but to cut her hours in costuming down to the required minimum.

My first thought was to suggest this compromise. But your first idea is not usually your best idea, so I looked for a better plan of action. I said, “Hey, dear, I didn’t even think of finding a compromise last night. What would work for you?” and she said, “Yeah, makes sense. Let me think about it.” And later, she came back to me with, “Would it work for you if I only did my minimum commitment for costuming?” Problem solved.

So Jedi relationship trick #1 is:

Instead of proposing a compromise, ask the other person to propose one.

When to try this

Using this trick isn’t limited to just your significant other. It can be a good solution with just about anybody — friends, relatives, coworkers, maybe even somebody you just met.

Obviously, use some common sense. Some questions to ask yourself are:

  • Do I trust this person?
  • Has this person been fair to me in the past and shown some interest in being flexible?
  • Have our recent interactions been fair to good?

Also (and this is true for many interactions with others), your chances of success are much better if you can you can talk to the other person when they are not stressed or actively angry about something (toward you or someone else).

(Warning: Don’t try this if you think the other person might act in a manipulative way. In my case, someone less trustworthy might have answered, “Well, I propose that we go to one movie a week; that should make you feel better.” This person has put a stake in the ground and won’t accept any counteroffer that strays too far from that level of effort. This uses a psychological principle called the anchoring effect. It’s a basic negotiating tactic that you might want to learn more about.)

The principles behind this “trick”

I say “trick” in quotation marks because it’s not really a trick. It’s not manipulative, either. It’s honest and respectful. It’s a technique. Used properly, it increases the chances of a good outcome. The other person may agree to your compromise or even come up with one that’s better than what you had thought of. Even if you don’t like their compromise, you’ve gained some goodwill, and you already have your own compromise to offer.

This technique is based on three aspects of human behavior:

  • If the first thing said sounds angry or aggressive, the other person will escalate in the same direction, and turning the conversation around is almost impossible. This technique begins with goodwill and respect for the other person, and it is often answered in the same way.
  • Nobody likes being told what to do. Even though what you propose is a compromise, it’s human nature to hear it as a demand. This technique starts with a question that everyone like to hear: What would work for you?
  • Everybody likes to be in control of their lives. This technique immediately hands the initiative over to the other person — it’s not total control, but it gives the other person control over what happens next. It also sets the expectation that the current interaction will be a respectful conversation, not a one-sided demand.

With human nature being what it is, no technique guarantees success. But used properly, this one leads to better outcomes for you, and it strengthens your relationships instead of making them worse. Believe me, the world will give you a place you can try this out, and soon.

To get better results, you have to use better tools. Give this one a try.

Thanks to my friend Reggie Young for pointing me in a different direction.



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Gregg Williams, MFT

Gregg Williams, MFT

Retired therapist. Married 26 years. Loves board games, deep movies. Boundless curiosity about everything. Over 13,600 people are following my articles.