Peter Pearson
In our 40 collective years in practice, we've discovered that most partners do not negotiate very well. Maybe our sample is a little skewed, since it is comprised of couples in therapy. However, the popularity of books on this subject confirms that most people are deficient in negotiation skills. So this month we ask you to focus on improving your own skills as an effective negotiator.Why do partners struggle so much with negotiation? It's hard work! It's often difficult to clearly define your own desires, plus it requires careful dialogue to elicit your partner's desires. If the topic is complex, you will have to ask yourself and your partner lots of questions. To make things even more difficult, many people hold the belief expressed forcefully by one of Ellyn's clients, “I didn't get married to have to negotiate. It just isn't ladylike to have to work that hard.”Where's the best place to start the negotiation process? Yourself! Here are some good (but not easy) questions to ask before even bringing up an issue with your partner.
What do I want?
Why do I want it?
How important is it?
What does it symbolize to me?
What happens if I get all or most of it?
What if I don't get it?
How can I make it easier for my partner to give me what I want?
What am I reluctant to do to get what I want?
Why am I reluctant to do it?
What am I willing to consider as another possibility?
If I don't get what I want, how could that turn out to be a good thing?
If I do get what I want, how could that turn out to be a bad thing?
The last two questions will stretch your mind. However, they have the potential to be very interesting as we almost never think of these possibilities.

Don't be surprised if you experience some tension when you are reflecting on all the questions. You may have trouble identifying clearly what you want, or perhaps you'll wonder if you truly deserve it. There's potentially another big problem: a strong reluctance to voice your desire. This reluctance is driven by a belief that if your partner loved you enough, they would effectively respond in a timely way. This belief alone is the undoing of many relationships!

If you think the first part is hard, the next step will be even harder–getting clear on your partner's desires.

Effective Negotiation Is Not For Wimps

Here's a guiding principle for asking questions. Find out what your partner wants and why it is important. However, this principle comes with a warning. It takes courage and emotional maturity to seek out your partner's desires. It's especially true if you believe that once you know what they want, you are obligated to deliver. Consider this possibility: you can know what your partner wants but it's not always true that you have to (or even can) deliver it!

Your next step is to avoid the two biggest pitfalls in negotiation.
1. You push too hard for your solution at the expense of your partner.
2. You cave in too quickly and are not a good self-advocate.

After each of you clarify what you want and why, you're ready to make a proposal using the following formula:
Honey, my suggested solution is______________________
It works for me because________________________
I believe it could (not should) work for you because __________________

By saying how your suggestion works for you, it prevents you from caving in too quickly, avoiding pitfall #2 above. By saying how it could work for your partner, it prevents you from selfishly overriding your partner, avoiding pitfall #1 above. Answering the initial questions will lay the groundwork for effective negotiation. And the formula will ensure that your suggestions consider your partner's desires as well as your own. Your goal is to make proposals that can create a successful outcome for both of you. You may need to continue repeating the formula until there is an acceptable solution.

Put your recommended solutions in the form of a time-limited experiment so you don't believe you will be locked into an unworkable binding decision.

Good and tough questions are the foundation of negotiation. Taking the time and effort to really understand the facts–and if appropriate, the feelings–is a gift you give to your partner, yourself, and your relationship. If you think you will get better with practice, you're right!


Peter Pearson, Ph.D., Relationship & Teamwork Expert for Entrepreneur Couples

Pete has been training and coaching couples to become a strong team since 1984 when he co-founded The Couples Institute with his psychologist wife, Ellyn Bader.

Their popular book, “Tell Me No Lies,” is about being honest with compassion and growing stronger as a couple.

Pete has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including “The Today Show,” "Good Morning America,” and "CBS Early Morning News,” and quoted in major publications including “The New York Times,” “Oprah Magazine,” “Redbook,” “Cosmopolitan,” and “Business Insider.”

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A Glossary of Terms that are sometimes Confusing

Couples Therapy is a counseling procedure that seeks to improve the adjustment of two people who have created an interdependent relationship. There are no standard procedures to help two people improve their adjustments to each other. Generally, a more experienced therapist will offer more perspectives and tools to a couple. Length of treatment will depend on severity of problems, motivation and skills of the therapist. A couple can be dating, living together, married or separating and may be gay, lesbian or heterosexual.

Marriage Therapy is a term often used interchangeably with marriage counseling. The term marriage implies two people have created a union sanctioned by a government or religious institution. The methods used in marriage counseling, marriage therapy and couples therapy are interchangeable and depend more on the specific challenges of each unique couple.

Psychotherapy is one or more processes to help improve psychological and emotional functioning. Examples are psychoanalysis, cognitive therapy, behavior therapy, Gestalt therapy, Transactional Analysis, Rational-Emotive therapy, or group therapy. Many forms of psychotherapy are blends of different approaches. For example, newer forms of psychotherapy called energy psychology draw upon recent advances in brain and neuroscience. These approaches often build on cognitive behavioral methods.

Clinical Psychologist. After graduating from college, it usually takes about five years of graduate school to get a Ph.D. in Psycholgy. It then requires an additional two years of supervision and passing a written (and often) an oral exam. There are a few states that allow psychologists to prescribe medications (with additional training) but that is uncommon.

Psychiatrist. After graduation from medical school, there is a generally a 4-year psychiatric residency. After the completion of this training, psychiatrists must pass an exam issued by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology to obtain certification and legally practice in the field. Psychiatrists can prescribe medications.

Clinical Social Worker. This profession usually requires two years of study after obtaining an undergraduate degree. While specific licensure requirements vary by state, most require clinical social workers to obtain 3,000 hours or 2 years of supervised clinical experience, after obtaining a Masters degree. Social workers can also specialize in diverse fields such as human services management, social welfare analysis, community organizing, social and community development, and social and political research.

Marriage and Family Therapist. Obtaining this license requires a Masters degree which takes approximately two years of post graduate study. The license also requires 3000 hours of supervised work and passing written exams.

The Couples Institute. We have assembled a group of top notch therapists at The Couples Institute. Whatever marriage help or marriage advice you are looking for, we are here to serve you. While most other therapists see only a few couples a week, we specialize in marriage and couples relationships, working to develop and bring you the most current and effective approaches to couples therapy. For more information about couples therapy or marriage counseling, see our couples therapy section.