This article is taken from one by Katie Shonk in September 2017, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School. Everything in this article is applicable to a divorcing couple.
Family conflict can be a real threat when relatives do business with one another. Negotiations between family members can result in hurt feelings, damaged relationships, or simply the nagging feeling that a better deal could have been reached. Whether you view negotiations with a family member as a duty or opportunity, the following guidelines can help you navigate family conflict that arises from family business negotiations:
- Anticipate Complications. Through shared experiences, relatives accumulate knowledge about one another than can enhance their negotiations. Family member negotiators tend to cooperate rather than compete with each other, which lays a foundation for working together to unlock hidden value. Relatives who do business together often have a solid basis of trust and understanding on, but there’s a flip side: family members often tend to avoid conflict rather than confront it.
Because it can be so difficult to manage family conflict once it arises, Harvard Law School professors Frank Sander and Robert Bordone encourage family members to consider and analyze possible future difficulties that may arise before they begin negotiations.
To head off conflict, take time to agree on the norms, standards, principles and processes that will guide your interactions. Also discuss how will handle differences in opinion or taste. Make an explicit commitment to discuss any differences or conflicts that emerge between two relatives. Try to keep other relatives from becoming involved and escalating any family conflict.
- Allow Feelings to Surface. In talks with relatives, the temptation to sweep emotions under the rug can be overwhelming. Suppose, for instance that Joe puts his vacation home up for sale, and his sister and brother-in-law, Judy and Mario, make a low offer. Later Joe receives a significantly higher bid through a real estate agent. Joe offers Judy and Mario a chance to match the bid, but they decline. Joe accepts the higher bid and informs his family members of this fact in an email. When Joe sees them at a family party soon after, they seem distant
Joe feels guilty about declining their offer but is also nervous about confronting their apparent disappointment directly. Eventually, the unexpressed feelings and varying conflict styles escalate into family conflict.
In their book Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate (Penguin, 2005), Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro write that negotiators can use emotions to improve their relationships and satisfy interests creatively. The authors urge us to address five “core concerns” that provoke many emotions: appreciation (having our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors acknowledged); affiliation (the desire for closeness); autonomy (the need to act freely); status (having one’s standing recognized; and role (achieving a fulfilling role and responsibilities).
To express appreciation for Judy and Mario’s feelings, Joe might open up a discussion about the issues most important to all of them. Suppose that they reveal that they thought Joe wouldn’t suffer financially from accepting their lower bid. Joe could express understanding of their point of view while correcting their false impression of his finances and sharing his own perception of the situation.
- Seek Outside Help. If business negotiations with friends and relatives threaten to become contentious, Sander and Bordone recommend that you propose consulting a neutral third party, such as a mediator, family therapists, trusted friend, or expert for help in family conflict resolution.
Involving experts ahead of time can also help you avoid family conflict. As for Joe, before negotiating, he and family members might have agreed to seek an appraisal of the house for a fixed fee. The appraisal by a neutral expert might have steered Judy and Mario toward a more appropriate bid while avoiding the need to involve a real estate agent.
As we all know, deep feelings, both positive and negative, suffuse close relationships. Sometimes the smartest option is to recognize the difficulty of negotiating rationally and to turn over some degree of control to an outside party.