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How to Win Arguments and Influence Your Spouse

Negotiation is a science, not an art. Here's how to do it well in marriage.

The path to successful, meaningful compromise is negotiation. That’s the foundation on which productive, healthy, adult relationships are built. After all, when two people enter a relationship together, get married, and have kids, they’re accepting the fact that they’re two separate individuals who might not always want the same things, but will always work together to be on the same page. But even though relationships are built on negotiation and compromise, we are, in general, quite bad at it. Compromise can easily morph into serious arguments. Differences can eventually become irreconcilable. 

Negotiation and mutual compromise are learned skills. And we could all use a crash course. Upon re-reading Dale Carnegie’s much beloved How to Win Friends and Influence People and Roger Fisher and William Ury’s Getting to Yes, David Sally, behavioral game theorist, and career-long professor of negotiation at Cornell and Dartmouth business schools, realized there was a lack of scientific explanation of what makes negotiation work, and how to do it well. His new book, One Step Ahead: Mastering the Art and Science of Negotiation seeks to change that. 

Whereas Carnegie’s book was based on anecdotal evidence and folk wisdom Sally’s establishes tried and true tenets, rules, and guidelines for negotiation that apply to all areas of life. Fatherly spoke to Sally about how negotiation is separate from compromise, why the power of asking what a partner wants is the biggest power any person can have, and why actions always speak louder than words.

What are the skills of a good negotiator? 

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To become a better negotiator, there are paradoxes that you need to deal with. You need to be both tough and fair. You need to act, and perform, in the moment. You need to be very present, but at the same time, you need to monitor yourself, your words, your behavior, and how things are going.

So, someone needs to be both present and also thinking ahead?

Just as an actor needs to both perform, and at the same time, monitor how she is performing, this negotiator has to do the same thing. You have to work, and acquire a meta-knowledge of how you’re working. You need to work on two levels: you need to both act and direct. You need to both perform and to monitor, and then to break down the game a little bit. 

The first half of the book establishes those principles. The second half of the book breaks down the component parts of negotiation. Whether it’s thinking more deeply about emotions in a negotiation, how to actually get prepared for negotiation, the words you use, or what role numbers play in negotiation. These basic components expose the reader to what we know about [negotiation] in a very scientific way.

What do you think that people don’t understand about negotiating or talking problems out in a relationship?

Compromise in a romantic relationship is almost always the outcome that you get to. This applies, also, to business relationships, organizational stuff, friendships, and more. People tend to think that relationships are way more fragile than they are. And they are worried. They’re so worried about offending a counterpart in a negotiation by asking for too much, or being tough. They think that that will damage the relationship irrevocably, and they don’t see that in fact, relationships take hits and damage, and that there are things you can do to repair relationships.

People believe that relationships are more fragile than they are, and they’re more worried about giving offense than they ought to be. Now, when it comes to personal relationships, I think that the relationship itself is always one of the major topics, even if it’s implicit, in whatever negotiation you’re dealing with. It could be trivial, from who is going to clean up the kitchen, or having kids, career plans, or future moves.

But that’s one little bit of advice that I would give anybody: the relationship itself is always on the agenda, but it might not be explicit. 

What’s the difference between a negotiation and a compromise? Is it more like, compromise is the outcome of negotiation? Or is negotiation better — because people have to say what they need?

In our most intimate relationships, we actually tend to overestimate that we know what the other person needs or wants. There’s some really great research that I cite by Nick Epley, a psychologist at the University of Chicago. And his advice is simply this: even very intimate partners do understand the preferences, needs or wants of their significant others or their partners. Even in the most intimate relationships, in his experiments, people were really bad at guessing what their partner’s preferences and needs were.

I’m not entirely surprised by that. But so what’s the solution?

The best advice is to ask them. And then, Epley did this in an international experiment, where he allowed the people in the experiment to ask their partners what they would rather do — and then quizzed them to see if they remembered [their partners preferences,] basically. Those people didn’t realize that they had a huge advantage over the other two experimental groups — one group spent time with their partner and they spent 10 minutes talking about these topics, and the other spent 10 minutes envisioning [what their partner wanted].

The people who got to ask the questions, though, were no more confident, and didn’t think they had any advantage than the people who sat there and envisioned what their partner’s day was.  The study showed that, actually, people stepped into their partner’s shoes, and envisioned what their day was like, were highly inaccurate about what their partner actually liked or wanted. 

It’s not about asking questions. But asking the right questions. 

Yes. Ask your partner what he or she wants. Ask them, what do they want to do? What are they looking for? What do they need in this situation? You are much more likely to have an accurate answer than even if you’re very empathetic in your own head and say, “Oh, I really know what my partner is doing.” Don’t underestimate the power of just asking directly.

I think that’s interesting. Gathering information prior to a negotiation is a way of stating needs — and holding space for those needs. It also dispels any of that assumption stuff, where we think we assume what our partners might want. But I do feel like relationships are messy. Sometimes, people might not want to know what their partner wants because they might not want to follow through. 

It goes to the classic cliché of compromise and negotiation. Both sides are a little unhappy at the end. In partnerships, we’re really talking about people who are taking this quite seriously. In a successful compromise, nothing’s left unsaid.

Yeah. What does a successful negotiation or compromise look like?

Esther Perel — one of her favorite phrases on her podcast when she’s dealing with clients — is “say more.” So tell your partner to say more. I think that’s genius. Say more, say more about what you’re saying. And I think not unlike giving a job interview. “Is there anything else we need to talk about?” If you have the time, make sure so you can be proactive about making sure that both on your own part, and your partner’s, there aren’t things left unsaid. 

Right. Being proactive about future problems can help negotiations in the future.

It’s a relationship. Check in with each other. You want to preserve the relationship. There’s this saying in Japanese, that a speaker says one word, and the listener hears 10. In the same vein, a negotiator in a relationship can hear zero words, and think nine. 

You don’t want that. If you know that it’s been your chore to do the dishes in the sink, do the dishes in the sink. You don’t need to have a negotiation about it, right? You don’t need to be told. So, in certain situations, you can preemptively negotiate. 

There is a power in silence — and a power in pre-empting — negotiation in a relationship. So, clean the banister without having a negotiation after it, and hopefully, your partner will smell the bleach and acknowledge it. Your partner will hear nothing, and think nine things.