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Tips For Naive Negotiators: How to improve your chances of getting what you want

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 third in a series of articles by Lois

Gold, author of Between Love And Hate:
A Guide To Civilized Divorce

Article 1 in Series

Article 2 in Series

In this article, an excerpt from
Chapter 12, Lois provides negotiation tips. 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.

Whether you are working on your divorce settlement or are divorced and dealing with the myriad of negotiations around arrangements for the children, often what you are actually doing is bargaining. The more you understand the basics of bargaining, the more strategically you can plan your negotiating moves, whether it be for the equity in the house or for a different weekend with the children. Below are some basic strategies which should help improve your chances of getting what you want.

  • Don’t make new demands every time you get a concession. This creates the impression that you are never satisfied and are negotiating in bad faith. Think about what you want and state your full request up front.

  • Acknowledge a concession. Thanking the other for a concession creates a feeling of goodwill. Be willing to reciprocate as an act of good faith.

  • Don’t start out from an extreme position from which you intend to back down. This leads to escalation as each person becomes angry at the other’s outrageous demands and increases his own.

  • See if there is room for “movement” on an issue which seems to be deadlocked. Ask if your spouse would consider any single part of your request, or would consider it at another time, if there is anything you could do to make your proposal more acceptable, or if there is anything your spouse would want in return. For example, “I really want the kids this spring break. Would you consider trading with me if I gave you Christmas eve, Christmas Day, and Thanksgiving.?”

  • See if you can find some benefit in your proposal for your spouse. “If the children lived with me in the summer, you would have the time to take the extra credits to get your Masters degree.” Or, “If you take less money in a lump sum spousal support, you will still have the money even if you remarry next month!”

  • Test a proposal against reality rather than criticizing it. If a proposal seems outrageous and unworkable to you, rather than jumping all over your spouse, ask questions calmly without being accusatory about how he envisions it working, i.e. where is the money going to come from, how will back debt be handled, how will you get money to put down on a house, what will happen to the children after school, etc. Using a “Colombo” type approach, follow your spouse’s logic by simply asking for further clarification at each point until the impossibility of the idea becomes apparent, or until you get enough information to satisfy your concerns.

  • Anticipate an objection. Ask if your spouse would be willing to simply think about an idea that you expect would be automatically rejected. For example, “I know you don’t want to sell the house right now and I appreciate your reasons, but would you just be willing to listen to this idea.”

  • Be conscious of your spouse’s need to look good and maintain positive self-regard. In negotiating language this is called “saving face.” It is to your advantage to state things in ways that preserve your partner’s self esteem. A person will not make concessions if his ego or self esteem is assaulted.

  • Do not use take it or leave it tactics. This backs the other person into a corner, arouses hostility, and puts his ego on the line.

  • Look for the anxiety underlying strong resistance to a request that seems reasonable. Behind every resistance is a fear or an emotional threat of some sort. When practical proposals are repeatedly rejected, try to find out what your spouse is really worried about. Can your proposal be modified to address or reduce these anxieties?

  • Use written memos to bring up sensitive issues, clarify points of disagreement, or review previous decisions.

  • In any telephone negotiation, the caller has the advantage because he has thought about the issue about to be raised. If you are calling, always ask if your spouse has the time to discuss a particular topic. If you are the person called, don’t feel pressured to make a quick decision.

  • Consider shaking hands on agreements, however small. Even though this may be uncomfortable, a handshake goes a long way to create a greater feeling of commitment to whatever agreement has been reached.

  • Balance short term gains against long term goals. Consider what you might gain now against the cost of future antagonism. Don’t undervalue the benefit of getting along, just because you are getting divorced.

15 Steps To More Successful “Business” Meetings

Here are some very practical guidelines to help structure your business meetings. These guidelines should be helpful whether you are having a major business meeting or just discussing everyday arrangements.

1. Schedule a specific time. Agree before you start how long the meeting will be. Structure makes difficult discussions feel more manageable. For example, you can say: “I need fifteen minutes to discuss the medical bills, etc., when is a good time for you?”

2. Create an agenda and stick with it point by point. This keeps the meeting more businesslike and less personal.

3. Do not try to discuss your relationship or use the meeting to influence your partner’s feelings about the marriage.

4. Do your homework. Get the information you need — exact values, costs, or work schedules before the meeting. Do not come unprepared. Have the information to support any new requests you make.

5. Develop a realistic picture your financial situation. Prepare budgets of the fixed expenses for each household, the joint debts, look at the gross and net incomes and see what kind of money for variable expenses and discretionary spending is actually available. Many conflicts over money can be prevented by honestly reviewing budgets together at an early point,

6. Designate any red flags or loaded issues on your list–those feelings or issues which require great sensitivity in handling.

7. You can assign one of you as meeting facilitator to help make sure the discussion stays on track and the agenda is followed. Rotate this task. If you choose this technique, the facilitator’s job is to:

1. Write down the agenda.

2. Keep the discussion focused on one issue at a time.

3. Periodically summarize the progress: where there is agreement and where things are bogged down, or need further information, etc.

4. Keep mutual goals and concerns in focus.

8. Use businesslike communication as discussed in Chapter 10. Use note taking to help maintain a businesslike focus.

9. Before beginning a discussion, summarize the points of agreement and disagreement about the issues under discussion. For example: we agree there will be family support for you to finish your degree, but there is no agreement about support beyond those three years.

10. Start with the easier issues. Success builds on success.

11. Introduce difficult issues by giving an acknowledgement or expressing appreciation. “I am very pleased with how we have been handling the credit card problems, but there are some new expenses related to the house.”

12. Be sensitive to timing. Take breaks in the discussion to think things over or to regain composure. Don’t continue a meeting that is no longer productive. Say that you think you have gone as far as you can go today or that perhaps you are just not ready to deal with a particular issue. Schedule another meeting.

13. Don’t pressure your spouse into immediate decisions. Take the time think about new ideas or proposals. New information tends to become more comfortable over time.

14. If you cannot agree on all points, settle on those on which you do agree. Do not allow the fact that you don’t have full agreement to negate the decisions you have already reached.

15. Write down all agreements and plans. Don’t try to trust your memory.

Tension Busters

Unfortunately, even the most well intended business discussions get sidetracked because tensions are high and tempers flare. Most people don’t know what to say to cool things down again. There are specific statements mediators make to ease tension and keep a discussion from escalating into an argument. These are skills that any good negotiator must have. You can easily apply these techniques to your own discussion. Study this list and practice saying things like this in your business discussions, particularly when things heat up. If you appoint one person meeting facilitator, part of his role would be to diffuse the tension and hostility by using these phrases.

Restate your goals and desire for agreement: “I really want to work this out; I want to be on civilized terms with you and be able to talk afterwards; I want the children to still have both of us as parents.”

Restate areas of agreement however small: “Even though we are stuck now, we have made progress on how to deal with back taxes, etc.”

Emphasize mutual concerns: “We both want to avoid court; we both want to reduce stress for the children; we both want to come out of this with enough money to live on.”

Restate superordinate goals: “We know above all else that our primary concern is the welfare of the children. We both want them to have a good life despite our problems.”

Redirect accusations from the past into requests for the future: “Blaming is not helping, how shall we handle notification of school events in the future?”

Be aware of opportunities to compliment spouse or express appreciation: “I appreciate the work you put into organizing our financial statement; I appreciate how reasonable you are being even though you are very upset by this; I think you handled that situation with Johnny very well.”

Ease tension with humor: Lighten things up from time to time by laughing at yourselves.

Now that you have a sense of your negotiating style, how to set up productive business meetings, and ease the tension in those meetings, we are ready to move on to the fundamentals of negotiating agreements.


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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