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Published April 23, 2010, 12:00 AM

Can just one person change a relationship?

Roger Fisher and Scott Brown’s book, “Getting Together, Building Relationships As We Negotiate,” is a classic when it comes to the art of negotiations.

By: By Val Farmer, INFORUM

Roger Fisher and Scott Brown’s book, “Getting Together, Building Relationships As We Negotiate,” is a classic when it comes to the art of negotiations. It outlines principles that can be used in personal, intimate relationships as well as international and business negotiations.

Fisher and Brown believe that if we change the way we react to others, we can change the way they react to us. They give hope to the idea that one person acting alone can change the quality of a relationship. Change is possible if we do our part to build a good relationship.

Fisher and Brown feel that disagreements should not be avoided in a relationship. They also feel there is no need to wait for the other party to take the first step or to sacrifice personal interests to have a relationship. The same principles used in business negotiations can be applied to personal relationships.

Be constructive. The strategy they propose is for people to be “unconditionally constructive.” This means doing those things, and only those things, that are good for the relationship and good for one’s own interests – no matter how the other party reciprocates.

The test of a good relationship is whether people are successful in dealing with their differences. Fisher and Brown describe this track record of successful problem solving as a “working relationship.” In a working relationship, people can disagree, understand each other’s point of view, act independently of each other and stay open to persuasion and new ideas.

The interactions are respectful. After a negotiation has concluded, each party feels treated well, even if they did not agree. If the end result is tension, anger or anxiety, then one may dread the next encounter.

Ways to be constructive. What does it mean to be unconditionally constructive? Fisher and Brown identify six factors that help people deal with differences in a way that maximizes their opportunity for success. They point out that this is not meant as a recipe for being good, even though it seems that way. This strategy will effectively advance your own interests as well as insure that the relationship will remain positive.

Even if the other party is acting emotionally, balance emotions with reason. Emotions are important factors in problem solving. Our feelings tell us something important. They are a source of wisdom. They inspire us to action. However, when emotions overwhelm our reason, we potentially damage the relationship. Wise decisions are not made in the middle of a temper tantrum.

On the other hand, logic alone isn’t enough to solve problems and build a relationship. Good problem solving needs a balance of reason and emotion. Reason needs to be informed by emotion, and emotion needs to be guided and tempered by reason.

Even if the other party misunderstands you, try to understand him or her. The more people understand each other, the better the chance of creating a solution both can accept. To devise a mutually satisfying solution, you have to explore the other party’s interests, perceptions or notions of fairness.

Even if the other party is not listening, consult with him or her before deciding matters that affect them. People are inclined to be more trusting of an agreement when they feel they have been heard and understood. To consult is to ask their advice. It means to ask for views, listen to them and consider them before making a decision. To consult doesn’t mean having to agree or giving up your right to decide without them.

Even if the other party is trying to deceive you, neither trust nor deceive him or her; be reliable. Trust is the most important element in a good working relationship. Communication has meaning only if people live up to their agreements. Trust based on honest and reliable conduct over time helps people want to reach out to settle any differences that may come up in the future.

We improve our reliability by making and living up to our promises, being honest, communicating clearly and being predictable. We cannot control the other person. We can choose whether to risk an agreement with them.

Even if the other party is trying to use coercive tactics, neither yield to that coercion nor try to coerce the other party. Be open to persuasion and try to persuade him or her. You can encourage voluntary cooperation through education, logical argument, moral persuasion and by your example. If you try to get your way by limiting options with threats, extortion or physical force, chances are great the other party will see the solution as unfair and wrong.

Even if the other party rejects you or sees your concerns as unworthy of consideration, accept his or her concerns as worthy of our consideration, care about them and be open to learning from him or her. Feeling valued, accepted and worthy are basic human needs. Take your partner seriously. Treat him or her as an equal.

Your partner will be more likely to deal with you if treated with respect. That means listening to him or her, accepting his or her right to a point of view and valuing his or her interests. The higher the degree of acceptance, the greater the likelihood of working out differences.


Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist specializing in family business consultation and mediation with farm families. He lives in Wildwood, Mo., and can be contacted through his Web site, www.valfarmer.com.

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