An updated version of this article was published on Nov. 17, 2021. Read it here.
I’m having an amazing holiday season.
Each year it seems our travel gets more and more out of control. Between the multiple holidays, family we need to visit distributed all around the country and the rounds of parties for work and with friends, it’s difficult to find time for anything beyond social obligations. This year my husband and I took a different approach, consciously deciding and negotiating what we would do and what we would not do. In the end, we stayed home for Thanksgiving and had a lovely dinner with just the four of us (him, me, and our two boys, ages 9 and 11). We are planning one trip to visit his family over Christmas, but will combine it with some dedicated family time. We decided to forego hosting a party of our own and have strictly limited the other parties we will attend.
How did this happen? I applied the lessons from my academic study of bargaining and negotiation to my personal life. So, with another holiday season upon us, here’s some guidance on how to negotiate with your partner while strengthening this critical relationship.
From theory to practice
I became interested in negotiation as a graduate student, and part of my dissertation investigated bargaining behavior.
I have taught negotiation to students and executives, published many scholarly articles on bargaining and negotiation and given numerous public lectures on the topic. But, like many academics, I hadn’t thought to apply my academic expertise to my personal life.
Once I started to do so, however, I quickly realized that the concepts and skills learned from negotiation can be used not only to get what you need or want out of your family life but also to make your family life happier overall.
The most important insight is that negotiation does not have to be win-lose. It can be win-win.
Win-lose versus win-win
The popular conception of negotiation is all about getting the best deal for yourself or your side. It was a set of Harvard professors in their groundbreaking 1981 book, “Getting to Yes,” who first popularly introduced the idea that negotiation could be “integrative,” or result in both parties being better off.
In practice, many negotiators see only “distributive” or win-lose possibilities. In their minds, there is a fixed pie over which the parties are fighting: If you win, then I lose. As a result, most of the early academic literature and practical guidance have focused on power. As you might imagine, this can be quite problematic for negotiating within the family.
In contrast, the idea of integrative or win-win negotiations involves identifying outcomes that are good for both sides.
There are a number of ways one can achieve integrative negotiations, but here I will discuss three of the major ones described in “Getting to Yes” and subsequent articles.
Trade-offs. For example, consider a couple sharing a chicken for dinner. One way to share would be to cut the chicken in half and to each get an equal portion. This would be a distributive solution, since we are distributing the chicken between the couple, and if one were to get more (win), the other would get less (lose). An integrative agreement can be found by identifying trade-offs between the two parties. For example, it turns out that I like the dark meat and my husband likes the white meat. So I can give him my breast and wing and he can give me his leg and thigh, and we can both win.
Adding issues. A second way to achieve win-win solutions is to change the scope of the negotiation. For example, each year my husband and I negotiate about where to take our summer vacation. I want to go to the forests of Lake Tahoe and he wants to go to the casinos of Atlantic City. As long as the scope of the negotiation remains focused on this one trip, it will be difficult to satisfy us both. However, imagine we expanded the negotiation to include multiple dimensions. For example, we could make a multi-year deal where 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.
Beyond positions to interests. A third way to achieve win-win solutions is to move beyond each individual’s position and focus on his or her interests. For example, when my husband and I were getting married, we had our strongest disagreement about the wedding cake. I wanted chocolate and he wanted white (vanilla). After many rounds of arguing, I finally asked why he wanted white cake. He replied that white was traditional and he wanted the cake to be white in the pictures. I told him that my whole family liked chocolate, and we wanted to eat chocolate cake. Once you move beyond positions (white cake versus chocolate cake) to underlying interests (picture cake versus eating cake), many integrative solutions become possible: white chocolate, bride’s cake/groom’s cake, Photoshop and so on.
In the end, we had a three-tier cake, with two large chocolate tiers and one small white tier which we fed each other for the photos.
Negotiation tactics for the family
So, how should you negotiate with your partner, parents or children to get what everyone wants during the holidays?
Here are some suggested tactics to help you achieve these win-win outcomes.
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 friends in part because they are unwilling to ask for what they want, thinking that the other person will be angry with them.
Simply giving in to the other person’s demands is not the pathway to win-win solutions. Instead, each party needs to express what is important to him or her and why, and listen carefully to his or her partner’s priorities and reasoning.
Explaining that I wanted to eat chocolate cake and understanding that my husband wanted white cake for the pictures was pivotal to our coming to a win-win agreement.
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.
While cleaning up after poker games at our house is not my idea of a great time, it’s worth it to get the summer vacation I want.
Be creative. Once you understand and accept each other’s needs, you need to be creative about finding ways to meet them. This can involve brainstorming and being tolerant of your partner’s crazy, 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 of the realities of negotiation is that either party can walk away. One way to keep the conversation constructive is to make promises (if we both order the chicken, I’ll trade your white meat for my dark meat) and avoid threats (if you won’t trade, I’ll have to order the surf-and-turf).
The past and the future
Each family has a long history together, with real and perceived slights. Families also expect to have long futures together.
As a result, it is extremely important that these negotiations be handled with respect for the other party, and with a view to the long-term costs and benefits. Pick your battles, and concede on the other issues. You don’t need to win them all, just the important ones.
For this holiday season, we negotiated for a slower-paced experience with more quality time with our nuclear family. As the winter holidays approach, remember to consider your interests, listen to the goals of your partner and search for win-win solutions. May your holidays be joyous and your negotiations be integrative.
Editor’s note: This is an updated version of an article originally published Dec. 18, 2017.