Understanding the Negotiation Skills You Need to Negotiate with Friends and Family

Learn How to Negotiate with Those Who Matter Most

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Who has better negotiation skills: strangers, friends, or romantic partners? In this 1993 negotiation role-play simulation, Margaret Neale of Stanford University and Kathleen McGinn found that pairs of friends achieved higher joint gains than married couples and pairs of strangers.

Along with their colleague Elizabeth Mannix of Cornell University, the researchers suggest that a “curvilinear relationship” exists between the strength of the tie between negotiating partners and the gains they achieve.

Specifically, negotiating friends and couples have an edge over strangers by virtue of their knowledge of the other side’s preferences. Yet couples may be so averse to conflict that they are less successful than friends at capitalizing on differences.


Build powerful negotiation skills and become a better dealmaker and leader. Download our FREE special report, Negotiation Skills: Negotiation Strategies and Negotiation Techniques to Help You Become a Better Negotiator, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.


 Symbolic Outcomes in Negotiation

But couples may not mind missing out on these gains, due to the high value they place on “symbolic outcomes”–the messages negotiators send each other about the relationship through their actions.

When a husband forgoes the movie he would like to see in favor of his wife’s choice, she receives not only the pleasure of seeing her preferred film but also the knowledge that her husband will sometimes put her desires before his. In close relationships, such as reciprocal concessions, whether minor or major, can be one of the more useful negotiation examples in real life.

Handling Special Favors

It’s only natural to want to lend a helping hand to friends and family when we have the opportunity to do so. But consider what can happen when the line blurs between kindness and unethical behavior.

Between 2005 and 2009, 800 unqualified applicants were granted admission to the University of Illinois on the basis of their connections to powerful individuals in the state. In the most notorious case, the university’s president intervened to help secure the admission of an unqualified relative of Antoin “Tony” Rezko, a political fundraiser, on behalf of Illinois’s then governor, Rod Blagojevich. (Both Rezko and Blagojevich have since been convicted on unrelated corruption charges.) The scandal led to high-level resignations and an overhaul of the university’s admissions process. Yet some lawmakers who advocated for these individuals appeared to sincerely believe that they had done nothing wrong.

The University of Illinois scandal illuminates the harm we can cause others when we privilege those close to us in our negotiations and other business dealings. Obviously, for each unqualified applicant who pulled strings to get into the university, there was a qualified applicant who received a rejection letter.

In their book, Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do About It (Princeton University Press, 2011), Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel present the University of Illinois story as an example of in-group favoritism – the common tendency to give special treatment to those who are similar or close to us, including family members and friends. When we negotiate to help someone close to us gain access to a scarce resource or a select group (such as a job, a bank loan, or a spot on an admissions list), we typically focus on how helpful and nice we are being. Meanwhile, we overlook the fact that our actions could disadvantage less-connected individuals, including underrepresented minorities.

This type of behavior, which Bazerman and Tenbrunsel categorize as unethical, can be flagrant or unintentional. The next time you are tempted to negotiate for special treatment of someone close to you, take a moment to think about whether others, such as members of minority groups, could be harmed by your actions. This type of reflection will help you ensure that your negotiating behavior is in sync with your high ethical standards (see also, 5 Principles of Negotiation to Boost Your Bargaining Skills in Business Situations). You want to be smart when essentially creating your own negotiation examples in real life.

Finding the ZOPA

Finding the zone of possible agreement (ZOPA)in negotiations in real life can be difficult, especially when dealing with friends and family. We all know people who have “alligator arms.” When the restaurant check comes, they can’t manage to reach their wallets, or they quibble that they had the small tomato juice, and you had the large.

With our family close friends, of course, the opposite tends to occur, with each person insisting on picking up the tab. Though motivated by mutual feelings of affection, these interactions can be awkward, even tense.

David Mandel, a scholar with Defence Research and Development Canada, recently conducted two experiments that tested how generosity affects negotiations among friends. Previous researchers had concluded that norms of fairness become more powerful between people with close ties. If that were the case, of course, friends would quickly agree on a fair price, and the deal would be done.

The situation is more complicated, Mandel found. Specifically, in his experiments, most sellers of a music CD bent over backward to offer a generous price to their friends. In fact, the sellers’ asking prices were significantly lower than what their friends were willing to offer. Thus, these sellers assumed the curious stance of wanting to talk buyers down in price. (This finding is a reversal of the classic endowment effect, in which the owner of an object tends to value it more highly than others do.) Curiously, in Mandel’s studies, generosity toward friends proved to be something of a one-way street: when negotiating to buy from friends, participants were not motivated to overpay.

In dealings with friends, Mandel concludes, our attitudes and behavior vary depending on how the situation is framed and what “script” is evoked. In this negotiation example in real life, the impulse toward generosity seems most powerful in exchanges in which “I am giving this to you.” When an allocation between two people is involved, however, a norm of fairness may dominate and suggest a 50-50 split. As a practical matter, that’s a graceful way of concluding a friendly dinner. And when friends have much more at stake—say, when one is selling a car or a house to the other—it’s wise to agree first on the appropriate process and principles to follow.

Have these negotiation skills helped you think about future interactions with friends and family? What special circumstances do you think can affect negotiation skills?


Build powerful negotiation skills and become a better dealmaker and leader. Download our FREE special report, Negotiation Skills: Negotiation Strategies and Negotiation Techniques to Help You Become a Better Negotiator, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.


Adapted from “Negotiating with Those Who Matter Most,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter, December 2007 and “Dealing with Friends, originally published in 2010.

This adapted article was originally published online in June 2011 and has been updated.

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