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Leader Board

What managers can learn from marriage therapists

About the author

Eric is a freelance journalist who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is formerly a writer and editor at New Times in Fort Lauderdale and The Pitch in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has been featured by  the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

EC President Jose Manuel Barroso and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (AFP/Getty)

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during EU negotiations (AFP/Getty)

A married couple walked into Donald Cole’s marriage counselling office with a quandary.

The husband liked to stop after work for a margarita at a local bar. He always drank just one, at a place where the drink was cheaper than your average pint.

He didn’t arrive home drunk and wasn’t spending a lot of money — the tradition felt like no big deal to him.

But the wife’s father had been an alcoholic, so to her, the booze on his breath was a sign of the potential alcohol abuse that could come. And the husband had grown up with a controlling father, so he saw his wife’s request to stop his after-work routine as, well, too controlling. The couple was at an impasse.

Cole, a therapist in Texas, began the negotiations as he always does. He asked the couple to imagine things from the other side. Picture what it would be like to have grown up with an alcoholic father and then living with a husband who wants to drink every night. Visualise growing up with little freedom and consider, then, how you might feel about doing as you please as an adult.

“It really is an ‘aha’ moment,” Cole said. “Sometimes, for some couples, realising the motivations of your spouse and knowing that they’re very deep and tied to some emotion is enough to start the negotiation process.” 

Understanding the motivation of the other side is exactly how negotiations ought to begin in business, too. Increasingly, managers at all levels are now expected to know how to negotiate not only new contracts, but also with the people who work for them.

It wasn’t always this way. A generation ago, people in senior management were expected to make all the decisions and had little reason to collaborate with anyone, said William Ury, an expert negotiator who has mediated everything from labour strikes to ending a Venezuelan civil war.

Now, companies want lower-level employees to bring ideas to their managers and influence the way business is done — and that means leaders need to be able to negotiate with their subordinates.

“If you can listen, you can put yourself in a position to understand the other side,” Ury said.. 

This is easier in some cultures than others. Many people in South America and Asia put high value on relationships and will sometimes expect both sides to first understand each other personally before real dialogue can begin. In northern Europe, meanwhile, there is often an expectation of efficiency in talks, and little value is placed on what’s perceived as chitchat. And in the US, a “time is money” culture leads to impatient reactions during negotiations.

The art of persuasion

The first step to becoming a better negotiator is simple: read up on techniques, said Robert C Bordone, a Harvard University law professor and director of the school’s Negotiation and Mediation Clinic. Then, plan for different types of negotiations by practicing which strategy you’ll use.

“Often times, people kind of blunder their way through negotiations. They may have good strategic coplans and great business models and just assume people will get in line,” Bordone said.

But the key to successful negotiation — that is, getting the other side to accept your proposal or at least come to a compromise – is not always about having the best idea. Often it is about knowing how to get the other side to see it that way.

That takes practice. Bordone said the art of negotiation is no different than playing a musical instrument or sport. Just like practicing a tennis serve with a skilled player on the other side of the net will improve your game, negotiators get better by finding someone to use as a sounding-board and testing out different strategies to get the other side to say yes.

For Ury, he became an international expert on negotiation by concentrating on every skill needed to negotiate, one by one. He gave himself goals, one month it was working on his ability to listen. Another, it was about finding common ground. Ury also designed a place to practice. He convinced a friend who was a judge to let him mediate small claims lawsuits, simple disputes over small amounts of money.

“If we want to get what we want, whether it’s with our employees or board members or with our spouse, we need to be able to negotiate our needs,” Ury said.

In some countries, negotiation success will also be governed by small cultural gestures, said Robert Tobias, director of American University’s Key Executive Leadership Programs in Washington, DC. In China, tables ought to be set far apart to show deference to each side. In Italy, where intimacy is valued, business is more likely to get done when both sides are within arm’s reach.

“It’s often the little things that will decide whether you are successful at negotiating,” Tobias said. “One slight at the beginning of the negotiation may drastically influence the outcome.” 

In the case of the couple from Texas, Cole told them to come up with a series of options until the husband and wife could find middle ground. In the end, they decided the husband would invite the wife along for his margaritas.

“In marriage counselling, it’s rarely about who’s right and who’s wrong,” said Cole, who uses a method of therapy focused on managing, not eliminating, conflict developed by The Gottman Institute. “It’s more about seeing it through the other person’s eyes.”

That’s worth remembering next time you walk into a negotiation. You might not have an argument that’s more right, but hopefully you’ll be the one who’s far more prepared.