Even the best of relationships cries out for fine-tuning now and then. Whether you’re hankering for changes in a friendship, business partnership or marriage, developing top-notch negotiating skills will help keep your relationship fresh and on track.
One thought to keep in mind: In order to bring about healthy change, one partner can’t win while the other loses. Both of you need to feel that you’ve made a deal that improves your own situation while also being mutually beneficial. In other words, this is strictly a win-win strategy.
Phase 1: DO YOUR HOMEWORK
1) Evaluate Yourself: This is a private process in which you write down feelings that have brought you to the point of wanting to make changes in your relationship.
2) Define the Problem: What do you want to do to solve it? What do you want your partner to do? Make a list.
3) Consider your partner’s point of view:
What objections might your partner have to each of the items you wrote down in step 2? Remember, without compassion for his/her point of view you’ll remain stuck. That means this is also a time to consider any compromises you might be willing to make.
Phase 2: INVITE PARTICIPATION
1) Set the Stage: Tell your partner that you have something on your mind and you need his/her help to sort it out. Add that you want to use a set of conversational steps that you’ve read about to help ensure you both fully “hear” each other. Then, schedule time to talk when you won’t be interrupted.
Start your “meeting” by letting your partner know you love her/him and care about her feelings. Then explain that you want to talk about an issue that concerns you, while following the negotiating guidelines you referred to earlier. This will create a framework for the talk. (You might also want to type out the basic steps to share, so that you are both in sync as you begin this process.)
2) Intro the Issue: If this is a new issue, explain that you’ve been wrestling with these emotions or ideas for a while. If the problem is ongoing, acknowledge that the existing situation is hurting both of you, yet you believe there’s a way to work things out. In either case, tell your mate that you’d like to take turns expressing your thoughts. You’ll go first and afterward he/she will have your undivided attention. Then, ask if that’s all right. It’s very important that you’re both in agreement about the structure you’ve suggested, as that sets the tone for the conversation.
3) Talk about how you feel: During Phase One you traced the feelings and events that brought you to this point. Now it’s time to share them with your partner. Avoid attacking or blaming, though. Use phrases like “I worry if . . .” or “I feel unimportant when . . . .” Then, let your partner know that as a result of those feelings you’d like to see some changes in the relationship. But don’t go into specifics yet. First, it’s his/her turn to express.
4) Let your partner react: When you’ve finished, say that you’d like to hear her/his response. Don’t interrupt and be sure to ask questions only for clarification; not to challenge. Try not to react, even if your partner seems angry. When he’s finished, you might want to ask what he fears most about making changes in the relationship. It’s important to ask, because most people will not state their fears directly.
If your partner understands most of your feelings and seems willing to talk further, move on to Phase Three. But… if either of you has become hostile or highly defensive, say something like, “I can see this conversation has upset us.” Let’s think about what’s been said and talk again later in the week.” Then make another appointment to continue working toward understanding each other’s point of view.
Phase 3: TAKING STOCK
1) Restate the Issues: This is a checkpoint; it’s very helpful to restate what each of you knows about the other’s position. If there is any misunderstanding, clear it up now, and then put it all in writing. Comparing statements on paper makes it easier to pick out points of agreement and disagreement.
2) Address Specific Needs and Wishes: You made your wish list during Phase One. Give your mate a chance to write a similar list of needs and requests, too. You can take a short break for this, or, if she needs more time, schedule another day to meet and continue talking.
3) Compare Notes: Sometimes it helps to rate your requests from 1 to 5; 5 being crucial and 1 being a desire—but not one you “can’t live without.” Comparisons can yield some happy surprises; you might find that your needs are not so far apart, or that disparities center on matters of lesser importance, while key issues are close to being in sync.
4) Brainstorm Solutions: As you go over your lists, remind yourself that no matter how different your goals may seem, with enough time and creativity, you can find solutions that bridge the gap. Suggest every crazy, half-baked, bizarre solution you can think of, along with the more “rational” ones, and write them all down.
5) Sift Through Solutions: Evaluate all the options and start bargaining until you arrive at a deal. Understand that it’s OK to reach interim compromises if you aren’t thrilled with the terms of the only deal it seems you can both agree to. Commit to living up to those points, see how things go, then talk again in three weeks. It’s always better to reach a partial agreement than to end in a stalemate, because even small changes are change. While change takes getting used to, it isn’t usually as scary in practice as it was in your imagination when you were feeling so resistant. That’s why even little changes open the door to more change down the road.
Phase 4: FOLLOW-THROUGH
1) Write a Contract: Once you and your partner agree on a course of action, put the agreements on paper and sign them. This not only underscores the seriousness of the agreement, it eliminates misunderstandings later, should you each recall a point differently.
2) Evaluate your Progress: Schedule follow-up sessions, 30-60-90 days later. What new emotions have arisen as a result of your altered behaviors? Does your contract need fine-tuning?
3) Renegotiate if Desired: However, don’t just scrap your plan because it isn’t perfect. Since change, by its very nature, tends to bring more change, relationship negotiations are rarely one-time-only events. In other words, the fun is just getting started!