Negotiation in relationships: 7 concrete things you can do

When I think of the word “negotiation”, I imagine two businessmen sitting across a table with big stacks of money, haggling over the price of something and pushing piles of bills back and forth. But negotiation happens all the time. It happens up any time two or more people want different things and wish to reach agreement.

Here are seven concrete things you can do to help your negotiations go more smoothly. These are all things that have worked really well for me and Kyeli in our relationship — we wouldn’t give you advice we hadn’t tested ourselves. (; These suggestions are written for romantic relationships, but a lot of them apply to negotiating in business or other types of relationships too.

1. Listen.

listening ears by Niclas Lindh

This is the most important of the seven suggestions. If neither of you listen to each other, you’ll end up having an argument instead of a successful negotiation. It’s hard to hold back when you’re eager to say your piece, but truly listening is what’s most likely to lead to a successful outcome.

By “truly listening”, we don’t mean waiting for your turn to talk. We don’t mean waiting for the other person to stop talking while you think about what you’re going to say as soon as they shut up. We mean focusing all your attention on the other person. Focus on their words, their body language, their tone of voice. Empathize with their point of view. Understand what problem they are trying to solve. Feel why that problem is upsetting them. If you step into your partner’s shoes and see things from their point of view, you’re sure to have a successful negotiation.

It’s easy to slip back into normal conversational patterns, because conversation is the default way we communicate. It’s the way most people communicate 99% of the time. Unless you’re giving a speech, you’re probably having a conversation: talking, waiting for a reply, talking some more, and continuing back and forth. But conversation is not the only way to communicate. There are oodles of ways, limited only by your imagination and creativity. I’ll tell you about one that can help in negotiations: “checking in”.1

Checking in makes it easy and fun to listen attentively. It’s simple. You each take turns saying whatever’s on your mind. When it’s your turn to speak, talk about how you feel. Talk about what’s on your mind — whatever comes up for you. Let your stream of consciousness flow. Don’t worry about taking up too much time, rambling, or long periods of silence. Just talk about whatever comes up for you. Talk for as long as you want or as short as you want, and when you’re done, say “Check.” Then it’s the next person’s turn.

When it’s your turn to listen, listen. That’s all you need to do. Be silent and attentive to your partner. Don’t make conversational noises like “Uh-huh” or “Mmm.” Simply listen silently and give the speaker all your attention. There’s no need to think about anything else. When your turn to speak comes around, you’ll talk about whatever’s on your mind, so there’s no need to plan ahead or worry about what you’re going to say. For now, all you need to do is listen.

And that’s how a check-in works. It may feel a little awkward the first time, since it’s a communication pattern you’re not used to, but don’t worry about it. It feels like second nature after only a couple of times.

Regardless of whether you ask for a check-in or choose to listen attentively during a conversation, if you simply remember to listen, you’ll be most of the way toward a happy outcome.

2. Remember that you’re on the same team.

teammate high five by clappstar

The next most important suggestion is to be on the same team. In negotiations, we automatically slip into an adversarial position. We think, “This person has something I want. I am going to fight against them to get it.” We’ve found that things work out better for everyone if you remember that you’re on the same team.

Even if you want different things in specific, you still want the same things in general. You want to be happy, and you want each other to be happy. You want to reach a resolution that both of you are satisfied with.

For example, let’s say that you’re negotiating housework, which is something Kyeli and I did recently. At first, we felt like we weren’t on the same team, both during the negotiation and later when we were doing the actual chores. I grudgingly performed my chores, knowing that I was doing my share of the work, knowing that by doing so I was avoiding doing some things I really hate to do, like changing the kitty litter.

But then I remembered that we’re on the same team. Kyeli and I aren’t adversaries, trying to avoid as many odious tasks as possible and foist them off on each other. We’re partners, and we share a common goal of living in a clean and happy home. Focusing on that goal is like a spoonful of sugar. I taste our goal, and I’m happier to do the chores because I feel inspired. I feel like I’m helping win a cooperative game instead of feeling like I’m losing a competitive game.

Negotiations often end in compromise. One party gives a little, the other gives a little, you end up somewhere in the middle. Often this ends up feeling win/lose, or even worse, lose/lose. Both parties can feel like they got the short end of the stick! But if you remember that you’re on the same team, it feels like a win/win situation instead, because you’re focusing on what you both want instead of what you’re losing.

Say it out loud: “We’re on the same team.” Find your shared goal and remind your partner of it. It’s surprising how often we forget that we’re on the same team, and amazing how much it helps!

3. Calibrate a number scale.

Computing Scale Co by Kenny Louie

Now that you’re on the same team, the process of give and take can begin. By listening to each other, you’ve already learned what you each want. What might not yet be clear is how much you each want it.

“I really want to go out tonight.”

“I want to stay home pretty badly.

“I’d very much like to spend the evening together.”

How can you balance a really against a very? How can you weigh a pretty against a somewhat? Also, different people tend to understate or overstate the strengths of their preferences, so how can you be fair?

A technique that’s worked well for us is to use a number scale.

We use a scale that starts at -10 for the worst thing we can imagine, goes up to 0 for something we feel completely neutral about, then all the way up to +10 for the best thing we can imagine.

By itself, this isn’t very useful at all, because just as “really” and “very” mean different things to different people, “5” and “8” mean different things to different people. Try it — I bet you’ll be surprised how much variation you’ll find in people’s scales.

Calibrating your scales can solve this problem. Tell stories of good or bad things that might happen. Detail how you would feel in that situation. Then give it a number. Find some situations where you both have the same feeling, and agree on a number to give to that intensity of feeling. If you agree on examples for -10, -7, -5, -3, 3, 5, 7, and 10, it’s easy to read between the lines for the rest. Number scales work well for us, but if words, phrases, or stories work better for you, go for it. We understand that we may be making the usual error when sharing any advice that works well for us. (:

Now that you have a shared vocabulary for talking about the intensity of your like or dislike for a particular outcome, you can negotiate with full information. Now, instead of knowing that you and your partner wanted something “very much”, you know that you want it with a strength of 3 and your partner wants it with a strength of 6.

4. Be a big girl. Be a big boy.

heart the fence by Niecieden

Being a big girl or boy is all about boundaries: how much responsibility you take for yourself, how much responsibility you take for others, and how you can stand up for yourself without trampling over anyone else.

Stand up and hug yourself tight, with your arms crossed defensively. This is having your boundaries pulled in too close, taking zero responsibility for how your actions affect others. You’re like an island. This leads to inconsiderate and unconcerned behavior.

Stand up and open your arms as far out as they can go, encompassing everything around you. This is having your boundaries out too far, taking responsibility for everything and everyone around you. You’re like the whole planet. This leads to sacrificing your own needs to take care of everyone else.

Neither is healthy; the healthy place is somewhere in between. Stand up and hold your arms out, clasping your hands to make a circle with your arms. This is having healthy boundaries, a balance of out and in. You’re like a peninsula, separate while still connected to others. You take responsibility for yourself, and you respect others without coddling them.

Finding your boundaries can be rough, but it’s worth it. Holding your boundaries is rough as well, but equally important.

For example, say you and your partner are having an argument. Your partner wants to go to the movies to see the hot new release, but you want a quiet night in. She says she wants to go out with a strength of 6 and you’ve admitted your preference for staying in is a 4. She tells you that, since her preference is higher, she wins and you have to go along, but you aren’t interested in the movie and don’t want to leave the house. If your boundaries are firm, you can say, “I know your preference is higher, but I know that if I went, I would not have a good time. I would much rather stay home. How about you go with a friend tonight, and I stay home?”

5. Be an island, then be a peninsula.

Forgotten Mainland by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

Being on the same team and focusing on shared goals is very important, but it’s also important to separate your own desires from your partner’s desires. Separate what you want for yourself from what you want for your partner, for the relationship, etc. Have you ever thought something like this? “Well, I want this thing, but my partner wants the opposite thing more than I do, and I want her to be happy, so I guess what I most want is the opposite of what I thought I wanted.” If you think out loud, this can be fine. The important thing is to be clear about what you want on your behalf versus what you want on your partner’s behalf.

First, be an island. Then, be a peninsula.

First, talk about what you would want if you were an island. Talk about what you would prefer if you weren’t considering anyone else’s feelings.

Then, talk about how your understanding of your partner’s preferences affects your preferences.

This helps clear things up, and can also catch misunderstandings of each other’s preferences. If your partner says, “Well, what I’d really like to do is get married in the summer, but since you think it would be too hot, I guess I can wait until the fall,” that gives you the opportunity to jump in with, “Wait a sec, that wasn’t what I meant; I don’t think it would be too hot at all.” If your partner had instead done all the emotional arithmetic in her head and only stated her conclusion: “Waiting until the fall would be fine, honey,” then you lose an opportunity to correct that miscommunication. Another way to say this is: Show your work.

If you only share your end results, if you only talk about what you want as a peninsula and you don’t break it down into what you want as an island, then it’s easy to get confused, especially if your partner does the same thing.

In fact, if you negotiate based on your assumptions about your partner’s preferences instead of negotiating based on your own island preferences, you can end up going to Abilene.

6. Don’t go to Abilene.

Abilene Plaza sign

If your boundaries are out too far, if you’re not being a big girl or a big boy, you may take too much responsibility for your partner’s preferences and not enough for your own. This can result in “going to Abilene.”2

Going to Abilene

On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas, a family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene (53 miles north) for dinner. The wife says, “Sounds like a great idea.” The husband, despite worrying about the drive being long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, “Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.” The mother-in-law then says, “Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”

The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted.

One of them dishonestly says, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it.” The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, “I wasn’t delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you.” The wife says, “I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that.” The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.

The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.

If you assume your partner’s preferences and act on them instead of clearly communicating your own preferences (be an island, then be a peninsula), you may end up going to Abilene too. “Going to Abilene” is the term for any outcome that nobody actually wanted — everyone went along with it because they thought it was what everyone else wanted.

It sounds silly, but it happens all the time when people don’t communicate clearly about their own desires. Heck, I’ve seen entire marriages that are in Abilene, where each spouse is only staying with the other one because they think it’s what’s the other spouse wants.

7. Don’t assume IOUs.

IOU by Laurenellen McCann

When the negotiation is over, there may have been some give and there may have been some take. If you feel like you gave more than your partner, don’t assume your partner now “owes you one.”

If you do, these assumptions lead to misunderstandings and resentment. If your partner doesn’t explicitly agree to owe you one, they probably don’t share your expectation, and they’ll feel blindsided when it comes up later. You, on the other hand, will start building up grudging resentment when your partner fails to pay back their assumed IOUs.

That’s a bad option, but you have two good options. You can either give it freely, with no expectations, or you can be explicit about repayment.

For example, if you give your partner a back massage, either explicitly negotiate a fair trade or give it freely with no expectations or resentment. Either of those two options are great. The option that’s not great is to keep a silent tally in your head, and only bring it up once it’s a big deal and has built up to the point of feeling resentment.

That’s it!

To recap:

  1. Listen.
  2. Remember that you’re on the same team.
  3. Calibrate a number scale.
  4. Be a big girl or boy.
  5. Be an island, then be a peninsula.
  6. Don’t go to Abilene.
  7. Don’t assume IOUs.

If you have ideas or additional suggestions for negotiating with your partner, let’s discuss them in the comments section!

1. Checking in is a technique we learned from the Reclaiming tradition, which was in turn borrowed from group therapy practices.
2. Harvey, Jerry B. (1974), “The Abilene Paradox and other Meditations on Management”, Organizational Dynamics 3(1): 63, doi:10.1016/0090-2616(74)90005-9


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