Adam Blatner, M.D.

December 3, 2007

Some relationships involve little negotiation. They operate more as a hierarchy of power, characterized by the giving of orders and expecting unquestioned obedience. Occasionally this is appropriate to the situation (e.g., in many military settings, or, playfully, in square dancing). There is room for a little more interactivity between surgeon and operating room nurse, or in following the instructions of a coach or teacher. For other situations, though, such as in marriage, negotiations with friends, older teens and young adult children, on some committees, and so forth, more of a consensus is needed. There isn’t such a time crunch, and people prefer to have their own opinions and preferences heard and honored. I call this much larger category of communications “ongoing negotiations.”

Ongoing negotiations may be handled with more or less skill. We continue to learn ways to make this process more skillful, and this paper will address some of these approaches.

Culture has evolved in the last century, so what may have been more of a hierarchy in the family has become more of a democracy. Jokes such as “who wears the pants in your family” imply that wearing the pants—being the man—means that the man dominates, must be obeyed, the woman submits. If the woman dominates, the man is belittled as “henpecked.” However, perhaps I live in a more egalitarian and middle-class world, but most of the folks I know are more equal and egalitarian in their negotiations about all manner of aspects of life.

Still, there are residues that make negotiations sticky. “I’m the father, so I get to be the boss” still has a startling prevalence, if not explicitly, then implicitly. Sometimes the authority is taken by the one who earns more money, or the one who does more of the work. In specific tasks, often authority may be temporarily delegated to the one who seems to have more interest and/or expertise in that role, and all parties concur. In some tasks, though, a fair amount of mutuality is needed: “I need you to participate more fully in making priorities in our budget, deciding on discipline for the kids, and so forth. (Interestingly, regarding discipline for the family, decisions need to be made regarding (1) what the rules should be; (2) what the standards for fulfillment of those rules should be, in terms of how much and what kinds of laxity or error is permissible; (3) what the consequences should be of not fulfilling those rules or breaking them; and (4) how should those consequences be applied—with or without anger, sadistic glee, accompanied by put downs, name-calling, guilt-producing manipulations, and so forth.

The point of this paper is that ongoing negotiations is a bit of an art. There are skills involved, and perhaps even a kind of etiquette. But new situations require new policies. The introduction of new tools—forks, tv dinners, email—requires its own set of agreed-upon rules, etiquette, limits.

The Complexity of Communications

We should not assume that reasonably mature and well-intentioned people don’t need to work things out. This is especially true for people faced with a new situation or technology, because in situations of ambiguity or novelty, people tend to regress slightly under the stress of just trying to get things right, stay oriented. Being time-intensive, busy, hurried, also creates those little regressions. If your doctor is too pressured by the clinic manager /HMO administrator, there’s some tendency to be too technical and bedside manner loses.

Another block to this process is that too often people tend to be proud and think that they are supposed to know—and that therefore they do know what to do and how to do it right. Alas, in fact, most people do not know. Ideally, we need to become more explicitly aware that we do not know the fine points of ongoing negotiation. It’s generally not taught as a skill in school, and often it is not well-modeled by those in authority or on television. Thinking that one has been “taught manners” by one’s parents as a child is illusory, because, as I note, new situations need a working out of new procedures.

A little further on, we’ll note some categories of communication that need to be included explicitly in the art of negotiations, such as nonverbal aspects of communication—voice tone, facial expression, posture, pacing, eye contact, and so forth. If people don’t know about the power of these variables and the need to be free to notice and comment on them, they tend to assume that communications are a simple matter: “I mean what I say.” But it is not at all simple. People generally do not realize—as it is rarely taught explicitly in school—that folks frequently do not express clearly what they mean. Also, they often don’t express their thoughts in ways that are congruent with their intentions! There continues to be insufficient awareness of the vulnerability of communications to distortion.

Following the desire to believe life is simple (as noted in the paper on the primary illusions—a residue of childish thinking patterns), people tend to deny the complexity of communications— they sense that it’s absurd. It’s as if their capacity to voluntarily move and know themselves is challenged. (This was part of the resistance to introspection and depth psychology at the beginning of the 20th century.) In part, questioning the simplicity of communications also implies a questioning that one knows what s/he is doing—it harkens back to childhood when this very issue was called into question by parents: “Remember to wear your coat.” “Did you zip up your pants?” “Put away the butter.”  The temptation was to protest indignantly, “Stop bossing me around! I know what I’m doing!” (But of course, this was a great over-estimation of one’s actual competence.)

In fact, when you were a kid, you didn’t know what you were doing. You were simply more self-aware than your younger sibling, or more than you yourself were a few years earlier. Relatively, you were more competent, and around age eight to ten you begin to develop the illusions of coherence and independence at a new level. (You went ‘round that spiral around age 2-3 with “No!” and the other activities known as separation-individuation, breaking away from the clinging of 1-2.)

The problem as you grow older and become more diversified in skills is that maturation is not a single line, but represents hundreds of skills. You become grade 12 in this ability, but you still haven’t learned to swim. You swim like a fish, but you are clueless with a computer. You learned computer skills at age 4 (while your parents are still clueless) and this gives a sense of knowing that then overrides some other area of real ignorance or under-developed skill. These compensations generate an illusion of competence that then generalizes beyond the actual domain of competence!

Back to communications, seemingly obvious, but in fact complex. One of the more important and under-recognized technologies was the development of group decision making procedure, with Robert’s Rules of Order being one of the most influential technological developments for democracy. Most people know little of this procedure. It offers a structure. Judicial procedure is another social structure. Beyond those, many people forget that certain general systems of procedure and etiquette are not affectations, but aids to ongoing negotiations. Diplomacy and procedures for conflict resolution operate in this middle area, and are not sufficiently applied to home life and intimate relationships—but they’re needed in these contexts as much as in large groups!

So the first step is to introduce into a relationship something that feels less “spontaneous,” but is in fact a great aid to optimal spontaneity. (Optimal spontaneity emerges best within a context of moderate structure; too much un-structured-ness leaves people needing to spend so much time getting oriented that their anxiety inhibits the flow.) In the case of ongoing negotiations, what’s needed is an explicit awareness on everyone’s part that this process is needed and desirable, and that there is no blame in this need. (The childish part tends to over-reach, and in this case, tends to say, “I don’t need that structure. I don’t need no rules of grammar. I don’t need to discuss the way I talk. I just say what I think. It’s just that simple.” This also arises from and reinforces the primary illusion that things are in fact simple. So why make them complicated? Truth is that things are in fact complicated!)

The second step is to introduce what must be considered in ongoing negotiation, so that all parties are acquainted with these elements. This is like learning the rules in judicial procedure, parliamentary procedure, the procedures in the operating room, many sports, and so forth. There are names for the moves and the issues at hand. This is beginning to happen with the new technologies of the internet, email, other social media.

Nonverbal Communications

A significant part of the art of ongoing negotiations is the willingness of all parties to include a wider range of elements in the discussion—not only what is said, but also how it is said. (Some of these variables are addressed in a companion webpage.)

For example, a voice tone that is intense, screechy (even just a little bit), whiny, reproachful, and the like will so confuse the subconscious energy field that it will generate a degree of defensiveness out of proportion to the content of the discussion. In other words, I may not object to what you say so much as hate the way you say it. It scares me, annoys me, makes me feel shamed or guilty, brings forth my desire to pity you, and in other ways distracts me from the fairly matter-of-fact question I was considering—how best to manage some simple common task. I need to be able to say, “Please say that in a less worried voice,” “Lower your pitch,” “Please speak more slowly,” and the like.

Similarly, a facial expression may be incongruent with the message. A flat, expressionless face may belie a verbal agreement, hinting that “It may seem as if I’m agreeing with you or assenting to your demands, but I may be rather slow in actually carrying them out.” Teachers in college are often faced with a bland mask of pseudo-attention that communicate, “Okay, whatever.” (There are also those who don’t mind expressing their boredom and disinterest more overtly!) What teachers prefer are faces that reflect more vigorous agreement at certain points, occasional clear disagreement, and looks of puzzlement. Actual questions are even better!

Semantics and Semiotics

Words don’t always mean the same thing to different people. Some words are emotionally colored, even loaded. The field of study that considers how words mean is “semantics.” There’s a similar field, “semiotics,” for how images work on the mind—which images evoke emotional associations. In language, the term denotation refers to the actual definition, while the term “connotation” refers to the emotional impact of a word. Semantics more closely examines the connotations of words, phrases, contexts. It also overlaps with the aforementioned nonverbal communications, as a sentence may take a different meaning is spoken with a smile or a wink.

Semiotics notes the power of visual images. It’s more of a part of advertising and political propaganda in posters, movies, or on television. The point is to pause and question which images are being used. By extension, we might also question the metaphors being alluded to in communications. For example, it makes a difference whether a challenge is described as a journey to be traveled or as a thicket to be penetrated only with the greatest of violent, machete-swinging efforts. In ongoing negotiations, it is appropriate to ask about the choice of metaphor, or to suggest that a different metaphor be chosen to describe some aspect of the topic at hand.

At times in conversations, it helps for all parties to really understand that anyone involved can pause and sincerely ask what a word means. Not infrequently a word has connotations, associations, attitudes that may be different between the speaker and the audience. This request should not be viewed as mere pedantic quibbling or evasive game-playing. (Well, rarely it is just that, but mostly it’s a needed part of the process of ongoing negotiations.

For example, in an argument with my wife—rather mild, and I ended up seeing it her way—the idea of the “best” way home needed to be examined. For me it was relative distance and speed, for her, as the driver, it was not having to hassle with a lot of traffic—especially trucks—and as I said, she had a point. So the criterion of “best” needed to be analyzed.

Allowing for the Non-Rational

For a while I lived in a world where if I couldn’t justify my preferences rationally then I wasn’t entitled to have my way. Then I learned that in many situations, my preferences, however non-rational they may be, needed to be given serious consideration. Without having to have reasons to back me up, if I didn’t want to do something, didn’t like something, that needed to be weighed against the other person’s needs and wants. A rationalized whim doesn’t necessarily “win” automatically just because the other person’s deep feelings can’t be easily explained.

What comes up is a related issue, then: Do you (the other) really care about my feelings? Many times being “right” or being able to come up with glib reasons may be irrelevant to the issue at hand—such as in the aforementioned preference of my wife not wanting to hassle with a lot of trucks and traffic.

Taking Direction

In ongoing negotiations, people also communicate about the way the communications are proceeding. This is called “meta-communication.” We talk about frames of reference, clarify intentions, suggest a slowing of pacing, or a temporary change of focus. It’s expected that such requests be honored, and this is what is meant by “taking direction.”

The idea derives from the theatre, in which good actors are appreciated if they can take direction from the director. Being temperamental, thinking you know more than the director, being full of your own creative ideas—this is the kind of thing only rarely can a “prima donna” get away with. 99% of the time it will get the actor either fired or the word will get out that so-and-so is “difficult to work with” and you won’t get any more jobs. Who wants to work with someone who isn’t a team player? So, one of the actor’s role competencies is the ability to take dire

There’s a bit of a game or skill in learning to do this with alacrity and imagination and style. When we were kids we even enjoyed the challenge in playing games such as “Simon Says.” (I mentioned the grown-up game of Square Dancing, in which a fun part of the challenge is again to implement the unexpected commands of the Caller.)

We need to bring a fair measure of this skill into ordinary ongoing negotiations, recognizing that these involve a kind of drama, because what needs to be communicated is that (1) I care about what we’re doing; (2) I care about your feelings; (3) I am willing to alter my behavior to accommodate your preferences; (4) I care about our relationship as much if not more than my caring about the task; (5) I don’t care all that much about my own opinion or solution or suggestion, that it must be accepted uncritically or that it must be used. It’s just an opening or provisional idea that I expect will be modified in our ongoing negotiations. In other words, I intend to be flexible.  All these can be communicated in a look and way of talking.


Ideally, it is best if all parties will be willing to consider the possibilities that they may be motivated by a number of feelings, some of which are more childish or less necessary to their present situation. This willingness to consider bias and let go creates a better context for negotiation. All parties need to balance caring about the welfare of others and their own preferences—not necessarily give up their own preferences, but at least give the same consideration for others. Often creative solutions and compromises can better be worked out.

People sense when this balance isn’t there in a relationship. When one or a few parties are perceived to wish to have their way in the face of the objections or reservations of others, there’s an intuitive sense of unfairness, imbalance. If certain social norms or power games are introduced, like “I’m the oldest so I get my way,” this is a subtle type of oppression. If the others aren’t articulate, less harmonious modes of interaction then proceed—open rebellion, violence, cursing, storming out the door, recriminations from the past, and so forth.

Other Variables

This paper could be expanded into a book. Over time, we will learn more about how to identify and implement skills that can effectively facilitate negotiations. Commenting on differences in temperament and cognitive style is already recognized—as exemplified by the many books about the Meyers-Briggs test, for example. Other themes include:

   – Sequence. Sometimes there is mis-communication because the audience can’t follow the order of ideas, or is disoriented to the context. (I comment on this as part of the Art of Case Presentation, in how one can more effectively present a problem to a supervisor, especially regarding the fields of medicine or psychotherapy.)

   – Bias. It helps to be willing to identify and express bias, preference, what political orientation or hoped-for outcome is desired. Sometimes this may not emerge clearly until the conversation has gone on for a little bit.

   – Warming-up. Saying, “I’m warming up” can express that your thoughts are at the moment not woven together or meant to be a clear exposition or argument. Rather, you are asking the audience to be a bit patient, and perhaps even to join you in dancing with your words and your imaginations about the edges of a theme as you try to ascertain what it is you really want to say, negotiate, address. You have a right to give yourself some wiggle room, and if you ask for it clearly, others will often grant you that time and space in the conversation.

   – Exercising boundaries: Give yourself and the other person permission not to engage with you in communications or negotiations at that time. They may not be ready. Sometimes, for me, I can warm up to a topic but feel overloaded if I progress at that point to discussing further specifics. I say, “I need to take a break—not ready yet for the next step,” and she understands. Some more awkward or emotional topics may be discussed in stages over several days or weeks.

    – Time Boundaries: A corollary of the previous item, sometimes it’s a matter of the amount of time a certain discussion may involve, and the mutual search for a time when that’s convenient. It also recognizes that what I’m ready for may not be what the other person is ready for. It challenges the egocentric sense that what I want to talk about now takes precedence over anything else, and if you cared about me you’d make me your first priority, even for my whims. (The sad thing is that in egocentricity, there is often an associated difficulty in discriminating between whim and real need, or immediacy and what can wait.)

   – Social Pressures. The presence of others at the time, or in some other relevant context (e.g., we decided this before I spoke to you; when I talk about our discussion with my people later; this is being broadcast live; what do the other people in the group think of this interchange?), issues of status, group pressure, and frames of reference need to be included in the discussion.

Honoring the Relationship

This is the essence of diplomacy. Keep the theme of caring about the other person’s dignity, self-esteem, status, foremost. Reassure frequently and in different ways—not too effusive and obvious, but genuine—that there are (if it can be said) some positive feelings of respect, liking, or at least envisioning certain facets of a positive future for the other person. This is the lubrication of the whole process.

People feel awkward in making differences explicit. There is an uncertainty whether the other person can tolerate this, will experience it as an affront. Being reassured that you can handle the give-and-take, that you are not threatened by the discomfort of negotiation, that there is some room for certain concessions, all are very reassuring. Nor need such elements of graciousness suggest weakness or submission.

Old habits of intimidation, taking a “strong stand” from the outset, feeling obliged to “draw the line” and such are closer to the modes of thinking of mid-late childhood, rather than of maturity. The art of negotiations is something that invites the highest levels of discrimination, the capacity to modulate emotion, and the integration of insight and discipline.


Ongoing negotiations is an art, ideally involving a set of skills and agreed-upon arrangements. It’s not just someone telling somebody else something, nor is it formal debate. Mainly, it’s not meant to be argument—and especially not a battle of wills or an argument that escalates into violent behavior or civil litigation! The goal is to honor the relationship and work things out.
(The art of haggling is more ambiguous. In many countries, there’s an art to haggling, negotiating—it’s an occasion for many elements of eloquence, poetic expressions, socializing. It’s part of the fun!).

This paper has addressed some of the elements involved in the skills of negotiations. I would welcome further input from readers as to other additions or revisions I might make.
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