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How my family makes holiday decisions that work for everyone, according to a negotiation expert

young couple looking at a laptop with christmas decorations in background
Negotiation concepts can be used not only to get what you need or want but also to make your family life happier overall. Marko Geber/DigitalVision via Getty Images

This is a holiday season like no other.

Many people have been apart for nearly two years and have had so many “virtual” holidays that they are craving physical presence this year.

Now that the opportunity for travel has resumed, so have social obligations – from trips to see family across the country to work gatherings and visits with friends. Between balancing the desire for contact with continuing to navigate a changing work environment, spare time is becoming less common again for a lot of us.

This year, my husband and I are consciously deciding what we will do and what we won’t. For example, we’ve decided to stay home for Thanksgiving and have dinner with just us and our two boys, ages 12 and 14. We are planning for our nuclear family to visit us over Christmas. We decided to forgo hosting a party of our own, not for pandemic worries or because of supply-chain challenges but to avoid stress and overscheduling.

How did we reach these decisions? I applied lessons from my academic study of bargaining and negotiation to my personal life. So, with another holiday season upon us, one that may look a little different from last year’s for some, here’s how to negotiate with loved ones for an enjoyable holiday season.

From theory to practice

As a professor, I have taught negotiation to students and executives, published many scholarly articles and given numerous public lectures on the topic. But I hadn’t thought to apply my academic expertise to my personal life.

Once I started to do so, however, I quickly realized that negotiation concepts and skills can be used not only to get what you want but also to make your family life happier overall.

The most important insight is that negotiation does not have to result in a winner and a loser. It can and should be win-win for all parties.

Win-lose vs. win-win

Many negotiators see only distributive, or win-lose, possibilities. In their minds, there is a fixed pie over which parties are fighting: If you win, then I lose. As a result, most of the early academic literature and practical guidance focused on power. As you might imagine, this can be problematic for negotiating with your family.

In contrast, the idea of integrative, or win-win, negotiations involves identifying outcomes that are good for both sides. In their groundbreaking 1981 book “Getting to Yes,” two Harvard professors first popularly introduced the idea that negotiation could result in both parties’ being better off.

There are a number of ways one can achieve integrative negotiations, but here are three major ones:

Trade-offs. Consider a couple sharing a chicken for dinner. One way to share would be to cut the chicken in half and for each person to get an equal portion. This would be a distributive solution, since we are arbitrarily distributing the chicken between the couple, and if one were to get more, or win, the other would get less, or lose.

An integrative agreement can be found by identifying trade-offs between the two parties. For example, it turns out that I like dark meat and my husband likes white meat. So I could give him all of the white meat, and he could give me all of the dark meat, and then we would both win.

Adding issues. A second way to achieve win-win solutions is to change the scope of the negotiation. For example, in past years my husband and I negotiated about where to take a summer vacation. I wanted to go to the forests of Lake Tahoe, and he wanted to go to the casinos of Atlantic City. As long as the scope of the negotiation remained focused on this one trip, it was impossible to satisfy us both.

However, imagine we expanded the negotiation. For example, we could make a multiyear deal in which we alternated our destinations. Or I could commit to spending our winter vacation in Atlantic City in exchange for a summer vacation in Lake Tahoe. Or he could agree to let me pick the vacation destination if I allow him to host a monthly poker game at our house.

Atlantic City or Lake Tahoe? Public Domain

Beyond positions to interests. A third way to achieve win-win solutions is to focus on interests instead of positions. When my husband and I were getting married, we had our strongest disagreement about our wedding cake. I wanted chocolate; he wanted vanilla.

After many rounds of arguing, I finally asked why he wanted vanilla cake. He replied that white cake was traditional and he wanted the cake to be white in pictures. I told him that my whole family liked chocolate, and we wanted to eat chocolate cake.

Once you move beyond positions – vanilla vs. chocolate – to underlying interests – picture cake vs. eating cake – many integrative solutions become possible: white chocolate, having a separate bride’s cake and groom’s cake, using Photoshop for the pictures and so on.

In the end, we had a three-tier cake, with two large chocolate tiers and one small white tier that we fed each other for the photos.

Negotiation tactics for the family

So, how exactly should you negotiate with your partner, parents or children to get what everyone wants during the holidays?

Be honest, not mean. To achieve win-win negotiations, all parties involved must be honest about what they want.

One study found that married couples come to fewer win-win solutions than other negotiators in part because they want to be sure to maintain their relationship. But simply giving in to the other person’s requests is not the pathway to win-win solutions. Instead, each party needs to express what is important to them and why, and to listen carefully to their negotiating partner’s priorities and reasoning.

Explaining that I wanted chocolate cake to eat it and understanding that my husband wanted white cake for the pictures were pivotal to our coming to a win-win agreement. If either of us had simply conceded, we would not have ended up as happy.

Make concessions. One of the hallmarks of negotiations is that no one gets everything he or she wants. You need to be willing to make concessions, to give up the aspects that are less important to you in order to get what is most important to you.

Although cleaning up after poker games at our house is not my idea of fun, it’s worth it to get the summer vacation I want.

Be creative. Once you understand and accept each other’s needs, be creative about finding ways to meet them. This can involve brainstorming and accepting your partner’s off-the-wall ideas in the process.

Should we go to Monaco? What about an online poker account? How about a long weekend in Reno during our Tahoe trip?

Make promises, not threats. Finally, a word about language. One way to keep the conversation constructive is to make promises – for example, if we both order the chicken, I’ll trade your dark meat for my white meat – and to avoid threats – if you won’t trade, I’ll have to order the surf-and-turf.

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As the holidays approach, remember to consider your interests, listen to the goals of your loved ones and search for win-win solutions. Each family has a long history and expects to have long futures together. Pick your battles and concede on the other issues. You don’t need to win them all, just the important ones.

May your holidays be joyous and your negotiations integrative.

Editor’s note: This is an updated version of an article originally published on Dec. 18, 2017.

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