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Accessing Your Resources As A Negotiator

Excerpted from Between Love And Hate: A Guide To Civilized Divorce
By Lois Gold, M.S.W. (Penguin USA 1996)

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This is the second in a series of articles by Lois
Gold, author of Between Love And Hate:
A Guide To Civilized Divorce

Article 1 in Series

Article 3 in Series

In this article, an excerpt from
Chapter 12, Lois focuses on recognizing
different negotiating styles and accessing your
resources as a negotiator. Although it is written for
separating or divorcing couples, the principles are applicable to any disputants who have had or
will continue to have a relationship.

Many people in troubled relationships are concerned about
their ability
to negotiate successfully with one another. They think, how
can we negotiate
issues now when we have had little success resolving conflicts
in the past.
They worry that the other is stronger, unreasonable, or always
has to be
right, and that they won’t be able to get what they need. Or
they may feel
the other is unreliable, makes agreements and doesn’t uphold
them, says
yes and means no. These may be very real challenges, which
raise anxiety when a potential conflict occurs.

But you may, in fact, have more negotiating skills than you
even though you are not always able to access them when
dealing with your
spouse If you think about it you negotiate all the time, in all kinds of situations. Often you are not even
conscious of these behaviors. For example, you negotiate with children — if you keep your room clean,
then I will take you to the movies; with a spouse — if you cook dinner, I will do the dishes; with friends —
if you can take care of Susie for me tomorrow, I’ll take care of your kids over the weekend. Even if you
are the kind of person who wants to please others and has difficulty asserting what you want, there is
probably a situation or time in your life where you have successfully negotiated for what you needed.

As an exercise, take a few minutes to recall one situation in which you successfully negotiated
for something you wanted. Maybe it was even when you were a child lobbying for ice cream or candy,
or as a teenager lobbying for use of the car, money, or a shirt you really wanted; or perhaps with a boss
for time off, or even with a policeman to get out of a ticket. Notice what you said and did, how you felt,
what allowed you to be successful. Take five minutes with your eyes closed to recall this occasion.
Then, write down what you said or did in that situation which could be useful in dealing with your
divorce negotiations.

Next, write down your fears or concerns about negotiating with your spouse. Can you use any
of the abilities you listed above to help with these anxieties? Can you think of three ways to be more
businesslike and assertive that work in other situations, like at the office, or even with your children, that
you can try the next time you have to negotiate with your spouse?

Are You a Soft or Hard Negotiator?

All negotiators have two primary interests: how strongly they feel about what they want and their concerns about the relationship with the person or parties with whom they are negotiating. These two factors are a part of every negotiation. You may not be aware of the role they play. Sometimes you are more concerned about getting along or not rocking the boat, while other times all you care about is getting what you want.Folger and Poole (1984) (2) describe conflict management styles in terms of a model of two intercepting continuum — concern for self-interest and concern for the interests of others. You may be a person who tends to yield in the face of opposition, not wanting to hurt someone’s feelings and not wanting to be disliked. This kind of negotiator typically cares more about the relationship and being accepted than about personal needs and goals. Such people would rather give up what they want in order to avoid the discomfort of potential conflict or the risk of not being well regarded. This person would be considered a “soft” negotiator. At the other end of the continuum are the “hard” negotiators who seek to meet their own goals without concern for the needs or acceptance of others. To varying degrees these people can be aggressive and bullying, believing that this is what it takes to survive in the world. They go after what they want and don’t care what other people think about them.

Either extreme obviously creates problems. See where you would place yourself in general on the grid below measuring how much emphasis you place on concern for your personal goals and how much emphasis you place on your concern for relationships. Then rate yourself on each continuum a second time specifically in regard to your divorce. Did you place yourself on the same place on the grid in rating your divorce negotiation behavior? The “X” is Susan’s rating. She feels she is much more concerned about the other person than herself. The “Y” is where she rated herself as a negotiator in the divorce. You can see this time she is more concerned about her own interests than the her spouse’s.

Dual Concern Model

If you are in Quadrant I, you are overly concerned about others and are not looking out for your own interests carefully enough. You care too much about the relationship and could sacrifice what you need. If you are in Quadrant II, you have a good balance between focusing on your needs as well as other’s concerns. In Quadrant III, you tend to avoid conflict situations and are do not assert your needs nor focus on the other person’s. In Quadrant IV, you tend to ignore a relationship or other people’s concerns in pursuit of your own goals.

If you are the overly accommodating kind of negotiator, (quadrant I or III) you will have to practice paying more attention to your own needs, perhaps even more attention to yourself than you are comfortable with. You will have to learn to take deep breaths so that you can think more lucidly under pressure. Prepare well for meetings so you aren’t so easily flustered. And perhaps most important — know where you stand. If you know exactly what you want, it will be easier to negotiate for it. Often you know what you don’t want, but don’t have a clear picture of what you do want. Before a meeting to discuss divorce matters, take the time to write out your needs and concerns about the issue on the table, whether it relates to the furniture, spousal support, or Christmas vacation. Use this as your standard. Ask yourself if what is proposed is bringing you closer to your goals? Remember, it will probably be easier to stand up for yourself now than in the past because your spouse’s approval and the relationship with him is not so important to you anymore.

If you tend to have a dominating style of negotiating, you might not want to admit it. I am sure
you have had experiences where winning and self righteousness may have felt good, but cost you in your
relationships. Domination is power. While it intimidates, it frequently generates passive resistance and
opposition because the other side is afraid to confront you directly. If you are in Quadrant IV, you will
need to pay more attention to your spouse’s concerns and needs if you want your talks and negotiations to
succeed. You will have to listen more carefully without interrupting, ask more questions about the other’s
concerns, and offer proposals that meet your spouse’s needs as well as your own. If you overpower your
spouse or take advantage of your strength, you will simply push your spouse into the hands of a strong
attorney who can handle you.

Is The Power Balanced? What If Your Spouse Is Stronger

Power in any relationship derives from many sources. Most couples have found ways to keep the
power in a relationship balanced even though on the surface it may appear as if one person wields
greater control than the other. When one party dominates the other, the “weaker” party will usually find
some way to rebel or resist. Resistance is potent, though not necessarily recognized as a source of power
by the “weaker” party. The paradox of power struggles is that each person truly feels he is the weaker
one struggling to maintain equanimity in the face of a formidable opponent. You may see yourself as the
weaker party without realizing your internal sources of power.

Let’s say you are worried about being able to hold your own in discussions with your spouse
because he knows more about finances, can think faster on his feet, or intimidates you because he is more
persuasive. There are things you can do to help offset this disparity of power. For one thing, knowledge
is power. You will need to become educated about what you are going through. Read a do-it-yourself
guide to divorce for your state so you will know what to expect from the legal process. Consult with an
attorney to understand your legal entitlements and develop proposals to discuss with your spouse.
Review things you don’t understand with your attorney as they arise. If you don’t understand the family
finances, meet with an accountant, a financial planner or an appraiser. As overwhelming as it may seem
at first, take one step at a time to become more prepared in the areas in which you are lacking knowledge.
You will be soon be totally responsible for your own assets and financial security. Future choices will be
affected by the decisions you make now, so becoming informed is very important. Make sure you are
well prepared for any “business” meetings with your spouse, that you have thought through what you
want, have supporting data for your position, and have the important points written down, even for small

Sources of power or vulnerability (3)

As you go through the negotiation process, you will see you each have strengths and weaknesses that will contribute to the balance of power. Below is a list of things that contribute to power and vulnerability in a divorce situation. Rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 5 depending on whether you see yourself as being strong or vulnerable in each area. Then rate your spouse and see if your scores are similar. Notice there are emotional vulnerabilities as well as negotiating deficits. The person who no longer wants the marriage, for instance, is in a stronger emotional position.

Power Vulnerability

Skills in handling conflict

Readiness to accept the divorce

Desirous of reconciliation

Ability to assert your needs

Knowledge about family finances

General financial sophistication

Experience in negotiating as part of your job

Experience as primary caretaking parent

Ability to persuade

1 2 3 4 5

1 2 3 4 5

1 2 3 4 5

1 2 3 4 5

1 2 3 4 5

1 2 3 4 5

1 2 3 4 5

1 2 3 4 5

1 2 3 4 5

Legal rights or “bargaining chips” are also sources of power. However, your legal entitlement is not always clear. There are many grey areas in the law and, given the same set of facts, two judges are unlikely to come up with the same rulings. In addition, your attorneys may be advising each of you that you have a strong case, so that when you sit down to talk each of you thinks that the law is on your side. Power, related to entitlement is ambiguous. It is subject to games, leverage and strategies.


2. William O’Hanlon, “Solution Oriented Therapy: A Megatrend in Psychotherapy,” in (Ed) J. Zeig, S. Lankton, Developing Ericksonian Therapy — State of the Art, New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1988.


Lois Gold

Lois Gold, M.S.W. is a mediator and therapist in Portland Or. She is past President of the Academy of Family Mediators and has been active in the development of mediation since the 1970's. Her practice currently focuses on divorce, family, and workplace mediation, consultation and training in conflict resolution, and… MORE >

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