The Secret to Effective Negotiation in the Most Difficult Situation of All: A Dispute with a Colleague, Friend or Family Member

When many of us think of negotiating in a difficult situation, we think of sitting across the table from a cold, calculating, crafty adversary bent on maximizing personal benefit.

While such a situation can indeed be challenging, skilled negotiators often report that that they are the most unsettled when they encounter a colleague, friend or family member across the proverbial bargaining table.

So, why is this?  And, more importantly, how do we effectively and respectfully negotiate with individuals close to us?   In order to answer, we must first reflect upon the angst often associated with such negotiations.

The best way to lose a friend is by bargaining with him.”  Old Russian Proverb

Fear of Loss

If we are honest with ourselves, our reluctance to negotiate with colleagues, friends and family stems from our fear that direct engagement on a disputed matter will damage the valued relationship. When we are connected in some significant way to another party, we may prefer to minimize our concerns rather than surface a contentious issue. What we fail to recognize, however, is that our reluctance to engage regarding a dispute prevents us from improving the relationship.

Inability to Address a Dispute as an Isolated Matter

Negotiating with those close to us is further complicated by the fact that a dispute between connected parties is often understood in the context of previous dealings and as a harbinger of future interactions. As a result, relatively “minor” matters may be surprising significant to one or more of the parties. Also, what might appear to a disinterested party to be a simple resolution may be wholly unsatisfying to a connected party. To further complicate matters, closely-connected parties often use one disagreement as a surrogate for another dispute that may be too uncomfortable to address.


Another significant challenge in negotiations between connected parties is the readiness of one or more of the parties to quickly cede his or her interests so as to please or benefit the other party, or to be perceived as generous, kind, etcetera.  We have all heard the refrain, “I’m fine with whatever you want….”

But, is this true?  Really?  While capitulation does indeed smooth over the immediate dispute, there may be unintended consequences.  Failing to work through disputes in business and family relationships often compromises our ability to reach mutually satisfactory and durable resolutions.


“All lasting business is built on friendship.” Alfred A. Montepart

“Relationships of trust depend on our willingness to look not only to our own interests, but also to the interest of others.”  Peter Farquharson

Gather the Courage to Respectfully Engage

So, how do we effectively and respectfully negotiate with individuals close to us?    We’ve heard the saying, “If the relationship is worth having, it’s worth fighting for.”  The “fighting” might be best understood as a commitment to maintaining a dialogue in an uncomfortable situation.

Create a “Safety Zone” for the Discussion

The starting point for the engagement is to acknowledge the situation.  A potential opening might sound like this:  “I value our relationship and respect that you have a different perspective.  I do not want our dispute to get any worse or for it to remain unresolved.  To get the ball rolling, can we agree to 1) work on our dispute; and 2) that we won’t do ________ as we try to work it out (i.e. threaten to divorce,  end a business relationship,  tell others, etc.) ?”

Focus on Interests / Not Positions

Skilled negotiators seek to identify “interests” in order to resolve disputes in way that meets both parties’ needs.  By contrast, ineffective negotiators tend to argue their case and speak in terms of “positions” that tend to be all or nothing propositions.  This “winner-take-all” approach is particularly damaging in close relationships.

Consider the following as an example. If a person says “I want ‘X’ ” (a position statement), the other person feels that his or her only options are to accept or reject X.  However, if a person says ‘I would like X, but I am open to other ways in which we might accomplish Y and Z,  the matters prompting me to seek X,”   there is an opportunity for the disputing parties to think of alternative and better ways in which Y and Z interests might be accomplished.

We negotiate best if we seek a third alternative that meets all the parties’ interests, rather than by resolutely maintaining our position or simply capitulating.

Consider a Help From a Third Party

The final secret to negotiating with those close to us, particularly under extremely difficult circumstances, is to consider enlisting the assistance of a mutually trusted third party.

For eons, nations, communities and families have sought the assistance of elders, spiritual leaders, counselors, mediators and envoys to facilitate communication and resolve disputes ranging from the mundane to all-out war.  Whether in a real estate transaction, a labor dispute, or a family intervention,  a third party mediator can buffer charged communications and provide a framework within which negotiations can take place so as to increase the likelihood that a durable and satisfying resolution can be reached.