From birth on in any human interaction there is always a certain amount of negotiation which must take place for all parties in an attempt to get their respective needs met and for cooperation to be possible. Ever watch a toddler who wants to avoid naptime negotiate with his parent to avoid going to sleep? Although we negotiate millions of times in one lifetime that does not mean we do it well. Even if we negotiate well in one setting, say a business setting, that does not necessarily translate to how we in other settings. Negotiating in extreme stress provoking contexts or when the stakes are high to “get it right” (such as when entering into marriage or exiting that same marriage) brings further challenges. So, let us consider whether we have the requisite knowledge, skills or ability to negotiate well to start with. We can do that by first taking the time to understand, acknowledge and articulate particular negotiation styles.
To simplify things, negotiation styles can be broken down into the following categories: avoider, accommodator, competitor, compromiser, and collaborator. If you don’t already know for certain what your particular style is and you are interested in assessing it in a more structured fashion, you can take an on-line self-assessment.
The characteristics of each style can be briefly summarized by the following phrases:
Avoider Style: “I rather just forget it”, “what difference could I make anyway?”, “I will just keep quiet”, “I lose, you lose”;
Accommodator Style: “I value the relationship more than the point”, “This tension is very uncomfortable, I’ll just do what they want”, “I fold, and you win”.
Competitor Style: “I’ve got to win this one!,” “I know I’m right”, “It’s them or me”, “I win, you lose”;
Compromiser Style: “This is important enough to fight over”, “If I give this maybe I’ll get that”, “I win sometimes and lose sometimes, you win sometimes and lose sometimes”;
Collaborator Style: “I’m sure if we work together we can come up with a better plan than either of us can individually”, “I would like to hear your opinion and give you mine”, “I win, and you win”.
Armed with the self-knowledge about your individual style and before you enter into a negotiation you can then also attempt to make an assessment of your soon to be spouse’s or ex-spouse’s negotiation style. Alternatively you can seek to have your partner also do some self-assessment analysis and/or self-disclosure about his or her own style and attempt an open dialogue about your respective styles and the impact of same on negotiations. Remember though that dialogue is not a negotiation about whose style is better or should dominate in a negotiation. That dialogue is merely an acknowledgment of your own style and an inquiry about what the other person sees as his or her style. It may be surprising, especially if your partner has not taken the self-assessment test, what his/her perception is of your respective styles.
Consider, if you will, what the dynamics might be like in a negotiation if one party has an avoiding style and the other has a competing style. There negotiations may be fraught with difficulties because while one is thinking “just forget it” the other is thinking, “I know, I’m right.” If this is sustained over a period of time the dynamics of the relationship can get strained and then miscommunication, mistrust, and hurt feeling are bound to ensue. However, if you are self-aware of your own style and can share that information and encourage your fellow-negotiator to take a moment to share insights about his or her own negotiation style then it is possible that when you come to moments of impasses in your negotiations you can each acknowledge that the problem may be your different styles not the other person. Focusing on the problem and not on the person is a way to break impasse and have a more successful negotiation.
Another key to successful negotiations is structuring the negotiation so that you have information gathering completed before you attempt to move to discussion of possible options for resolution or final outcomes. If you don’t complete information gathering you may find yourself getting stuck and having to rely solely on the strength or weakness of each persons’ communication and/or conflict resolution style. Consider, if you will, how negotiations might go in a divorce or pre-marriage negotiation if one partner has a competing style of negotiation and one has a comprising style. You might end up with one partner saying: “I’ve got to win every argument” and the other saying “this isn’t important enough, that isn’t important enough” and possibly neither actually ever getting their needs truly meet. This could then lead to fragile agreements that will not withstand the test of time and can lead to further disputes which are likewise submitted again to a process where neither understands their respective styles. That lack of understanding can then be the heart of the problem. It may not be possible to know for sure your fellow negotiator’s style and the same may change over time or from situation to situation. However, knowing your own style and assessing carefully your own boundaries and needs as a result of the particular characteristic of your style may help you become a better negotiator and feel more in control when called upon to participate in discussion which will have long term effects on your life and family. Try it and see.