Leveraging BATNA at the Dinner Table: Negotiate Your Way to Holiday Cheer

Learn to negotiate and lessen the stress of family gatherings with your BATNA and other proven negotiation strategies.

By Katie Shonkon / Negotiation Skills

Though more often applied to business negotiations, the following three time-honored BATNA tactics may also help us navigate family conflicts and tension during the holidays.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, or so they say. As we look ahead to winter vacation and seemingly endless days of family celebrations, many feel a sense of dread, anticipating tensions and conflict as drearily predictable as overcooked turkey and practical gifts. Even those who look forward to family get-togethers often end up feeling exhausted by the effort of tamping down decades-old resentments.

Psychologists offer sleigh-loads of useful advice for coping with these familiar holiday stressors: Clear the air. Breathe deeply. Begin difficult conversations with “I feel as if you . . . ” rather than “Why the heck did you . . . ?” Take a walk around the block (and don’t forget to come back). Limit the amount of alcohol in the house, and keep sharp objects out of reach.

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1. Negotiate by reminding them of their bad BATNA. 

At family gatherings, we often slip back into old roles and habits. You might be a perfectly groomed executive at the office, but back in your parents’ kitchen, everyone still sees you as the little kid with the snotty nose and scraped knees. Ask for the respect you deserve, and your relatives may stifle a giggle and say you’re being oversensitive.

In such situations, it’s easy to feel powerless. And, in fact, objectively speaking, you actually do lack power. Consider that when you negotiate, your greatest source is typically your BATNA, or best alternative to a negotiated agreement, such as a meeting with another promising supplier if the current deal doesn’t work out. The ability to walk away gives you the courage to demand respect and a great agreement. But what BATNA do you have if negotiations with your family fall apart? For many, storming off to the in-laws’ house would qualify as a WATNA, or worst alternative to a negotiated agreement, not a BATNA. Similarly, choosing to stay home (or kick everyone out of your home) would create bigger problems down the road.

How can you get around your weak BATNA when dealing with your extended family? First, remember that—assuming they like you well enough—their BATNA is just as weak: They probably don’t have a second family they can retreat to when the going gets tough either. Highlight their lack of alternatives by stressing the warmth and solace you hypothetically could bring one another. Then point out the unique value you bring to the relationship, whether it’s your loyalty, willingness to babysit their kids, or top-secret brownie recipe. When negotiators realize they’re out of alternatives, they often redouble their efforts to make the relationship work.

2. Go to the balcony.

In his book Getting Past No: Negotiating in Difficult Situations, William Ury notes that conflicts often escalate because of the common tendency to react without thinking to what the other person says or does. If, for example, your sibling mocks the presidential candidate you voted for, you might find yourself immediately criticizing his preferred candidate, and before you know it, you’re screaming personal insults at each other like talking heads on CNN (or like presidential candidates, for that matter).

Deep down, we all know that striking back will thwart our goals and damage the relationship. Instead of reacting, Ury recommends breaking this vicious cycle by stepping back and looking at the situation objectively. To do so, imagine yourself standing on a stage, then climbing a balcony overlooking the stage. From the balcony—a metaphorical “mental attitude of detachment,” according to Ury—you can begin to see the conflict as a third party would and imagine a mutually beneficial resolution.

3. Express appreciation.

Amid cooped-up-with-the-family angst, it can be difficult to see past our own perspective. But if you’re struggling, others in the house likely are too. The web of family dynamics entangles everyone.

To promote more harmonious relationships, try to look beyond your own perspective and appreciate those with whom you’re entwined, write Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro in their book Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate. When you express appreciation for someone, she will begin to feel more comfortable and cooperative, and tensions will begin to subside.

How can you show appreciation? By attempting to understand others’ point of view; finding merit in what they think, feel, and do; and communicating your understanding through your words and actions.

For example, if you feel annoyed that your parents expect the entire family to spend the entire weekend at their house, try to appreciate the emotions that might underlie those expectations, such as a sense of time dwindling or their deep love for their grandchildren. Thank them for all the hard work they’ve put into family gatherings over the years and the other ways in which they enrich your life. They might still expect to have everyone home, 24/7, but they may share their own sense of appreciation for you in return. And that might just make you appreciate the shrieking of children, blare of football on TV, and familiar family stories a little bit more.

How have you used your BATNA at the family dinner table?

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