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Learn To Be A Better Negotiator With Yourself!

September 7, 2016
By Jodie Richardson, PhD, Psychologist 

Recently I’ve been learning about “Principled” negotiation, a process created, studied and taught by the Harvard Negotiation Project and the topic of several books including Getting to Yes (1) and Difficult Conversations (2). In a traditional negotiation process we focus on getting the result we want, sometimes at the cost of the relationship. Principled negotiation, on the other hand, aims to get results while preserving or even fostering the relationship. Is this really do-able? Yes, and it is usually the best solution, but we have to be able to separate the negotiation process from the result so that we have the space to brainstorm different options, see what’s in the other person’s best interest as well as ours and find a creative solution. My colleague Michelle Leybman wisely refers to this type of creative solution as the “plaid” (3), it’s not black, it’s not white, it’s not some watered down grey in the middle, it’s that awesome combination of black and white that’s even better!

Unfortunately, too often we are unable to find the plaid. This is because, as humans, we like black and white; we like the illusion of control we get when we think we know how things “should be” and we have trouble stepping back from this sense of control to open up to other possibilities. We do this black and white thing in our negotiations with other people, but we also do it with ourselves…  This is good, this is bad, this is right, this is wrong, we make up rules that make things black or white. This is not entirely a bad thing, it helps us feel a sense of control in our lives, but we need flexibility with our rules so that we can find the best solutions, which are often not black or white, but plaid. So this got me thinking, we really need to be better negotiators with ourselves!

For example: “I want to eat that cookie” might be met with a rule like “you shouldn’t eat that cookie it’s bad for you”. So, if you don’t eat the cookie you’re good (yay!). But, what happens when everyone else at the table is eating a cookie and you really want one? Or when your mom bakes your favourite cookies from childhood? Are you bad if you eat one cookie? How many cookies equals bad (eesh, that’s a tough one)!

Essentially each time we take action we are making a decision that might require a negotiation with our rules. “Do I eat that cookie?” “Do I work late tonight?” “Do I buy that new toy or item of clothing?”  If we always say yes or always say no we are likely stuck in patterns of over or under-doing it: overeating, overworking, overspending, missing out on important moments, denying ourselves joy, disconnecting from people because their lives aren’t conducive to our rules, etc. Any of this sound familiar?

Rules do not always apply and we don’t want to just ignore them sometimes and follow them other times (which is what we usually end up doing). So how can we become better negotiators with ourselves (and our rules)? Let’s look at the recipe for negotiating with others. Here are some of the basics (adapted from Getting to Yes):

1. Understand the different levels of the conversation:

a) Perception (what is happening?)

b) Feelings (what emotions are involved?)

c) Underlying Interests (basic needs of each side?) 

2. Brainstorm options (without judgment, anything goes at this point)

3. Stay focused on objective criteria 

(for ex. market value, scientific judgement, professional standards, equal treatment, moral standards)

Now let’s take an example of a negotiation with yourself:

You’re supposed to be exercising today and you have a lot of work to do and your kids have soccer tonight. Do you fit in your exercise or not? Too often you’ll just say, “I’m too busy to exercise”, then maybe feel like things are unfair (possibly feel angry with your husband or your boss) and likely feel bad about yourself. Or, maybe on the other extreme you sacrifice your relationships with others (children, spouse, boss) because you have to exercise 4 times a week and put this above all else. Those are the go-to black or white solutions. So, let’s look for the plaid.

1. Understand the different levels of the conversation:

a) Perception: I have too much to do and I really want to exercise today or I’ll be missing too many workouts, I’m not sure how to prioritize or fit everything in?

b) Feelings: Anger (it’s unfair I have too much to do); Fear (I’ll get out of shape missing so many workouts)

c) Underlying Interests: Self-care, feeling good about myself

2. Brainstorm options:

a) Forget the workout today, there’s too much else to do

b) Miss the kids soccer and stay home to do my work instead, allowing me to leave work early to go to the gym

c) Forget getting my work done today, and leave work early to get in my workout

d) Have my husband take the kids to soccer so I can go the gym

e) Skip lunch break to go to the gym

f) Run home from work instead of taking the bus and get my workout in that way

3. Stay focused on objective criteria:

a) Equal treatment (maybe it’s my husband’s turn to take the kids to soccer sine I was there last week)

b) Moral standards (how many times per week is it important for me to exercise? How often is it important for me to be there for my kids soccer?)

c) It could be helpful to ask myself what an objective outsider might suggest?

In this particular case, maybe you had taken the kids to soccer last practice and it seems fair and also in everyone’s best interest that your husband take them to soccer tonight, so you might go to the gym while they go to soccer. On a different day, under different circumstances, you might choose to run home from work and try to fit it all in or to forgo the workout because work and kids take priority that day. Finding the plaid is not always easy. It takes stepping back, reserving judgment, and weighing multiple options in order to come to a wise decision based on your multiple personal values and the particular context. But, this just might allow you to preserve a good relationship with others, and yourself, while moving towards what is important to you (and it likely transfers to becoming a better negotiator with others too). Sounds worth it to me!


1. Fisher, R., Ury, W. L., & Patton, B. (2011). Getting to yes: Negotiating agreement without giving in. Penguin.

2. Stone, D., Patton, B., & Heen, S. (2010). Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most. Penguin.  

3. Dialectical Behaviour Therapy: Looking for the Plaid, by Michelle Leybman.

4. Kashdan, T. B. (2010). Psychological Flexibility as a Fundamental Aspect of Health. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(7), 865–878.