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How to Win a Negotiation Without Destroying Relationships

This is Part 4 of a multi-part series on getting better results from your negotiations. While our content on Modern da Vinci is tailored toward small business owners, these simple strategies will help anyone gain confidence in their negotiation skills.


Too often we approach negotiations as a competition or a “zero-sum” game.

When we view negotiations from this perspective, it implies that there must be winners and losers. In turn, we begin to see the other side as the enemy, and the negotiation becomes adversarial.

The problem is further compounded when we dig into positions. Our egos become tied to them, and we are less likely to consider interests or think creatively about what might be possible.

Emotions also run high as pressure and stakes increase. These conditions increase the chance of harmful conflict while reducing the chance of achieving a wise outcome.

These conditions also put relationships at risk. Whether you are dealing with one more parties, relationships are at the heart of negotiations. This is especially critical when we are negotiating with friends, colleagues, family members, partners, and neighbors. 

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The Key to Avoiding an Adversarial Negotiation

To avoid an adversarial negotiation—one characterized by suspicion, resentment, and damaged trust—view the other side as a partner in a problem-solving exercise. This is a core premise of the Principled Negotiation Method advocated by the Harvard Program on Negotiation.

Following this approach, you literally imagine yourself sitting side-by-side with them as you work through the negotiation process.

Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In
By Roger Fisher, William L. Ury, Bruce Patton

Even if the other side has significantly differing interests and goals, it doesn’t automatically mean they are the enemy. We have to remember that they are people with their own unique needs. By separating the people from the problem, we make partnership possible (Click to Tweet >). A partnership approach increases the chances of achieving positive outcomes while sustaining or even strengthening relationships.

The Getting to Yes framework offers some concrete steps you can follow to focus on the problem without being too hard on the people you are negotiating with:

  • Perception – If we see the other side as a villain, we will assume the worst in their intentions. We will be quick to judge what they say and blame them for problems and frustrations that arise in the negotiation. The easiest way to alter your perception is to put yourself in their shoes. This means taking the time to honestly assess the other side’s interests and emotions. Ask yourself, “what might they want?” “what might be driving their positions?” and “what emotions are they experiencing and why?”
  • Emotion ­– In any difficult conversation where emotions run high, we are subject to an emotional highjack. This occurs when our emotions overwhelm us and result in self-defeating behaviors (e.g. saying things we don’t mean out of anger or withholding what we really mean). Learn to watch for your personal emotional triggers and seek to respond skillfully when the situation becomes emotionally charged. Ask yourself the questions “what do I really want from this?” and “will my reaction help me to achieve my goals?” Pay attention to the other side’s emotions as well, watching to see if trust and respect are at risk. If you notice this happening, acknowledge the issue and encourage the other side to express their feelings and perceptions. Let them blow off steam if needed.
  • Communication – Another strategy that will create trust and partnership is to listen actively throughout a negotiation. This means suspending judgment and giving the other side your full attention when they speak. Be curious about what they are saying, and watch for cues that there might be more behind their words. Ask follow-up questions and reflect back what you hear to confirm understanding.
  • Prevention – In instances where you know a negotiation is forthcoming, you can be proactive about building a relationship with the other side. Seek opportunities to learn about them and to demonstrate that you are a trustworthy collaborator.

Separating People from the Problem: A Negotiation Example

Let’s use a simple example to illustrate how separating people from the problem can serve you well in reaching solutions while preserving relationships.

Imagine that you just relocated your business into new office space. You signed a multi-year lease, and there aren’t many other options in the area. Within days of moving in, it quickly becomes apparent that you have an issue with the neighboring business. You expected a quiet and professional setting but the neighboring business is quite noisy, and it is disrupting your day-to-day work.

You speak with the owner next door, but she asserts that there isn’t much she can do to change the situation. A few more days pass and your frustration continues to build. At this point it would be easy to:

  • Develop a view of your neighboring owner as rude and inconsiderate. You tell yourself that she is a selfish jerk and that she does not respect you and your business.
  • Angrily approach the owner and demand that she stops all noise immediately, or else.
  • Become locked in an ongoing adversarial battle that involves insults and continued back-and-forth with the neighbor.

None of these approaches will help you solve your problem. In each case, you’re still stuck with the noise problem. You’ve also contributed to a negative relationship with a person that you are going to be interacting with regularly for the next several years.

How might you handle the situation if you choose to separate the people from the problem?

Finding a Shared Interest (and a Solution)

First, consider that the owner next door likely has a shared interest with you – to be able to run her business in a fruitful way. Also, consider that it is unlikely that she has any motivation to harm your business operations. Ask yourself, what is most important to her?

If you speak with her about the issue and sense that the conversation is becoming heated, slow yourself down before you are drawn into an unhelpful exchange. Remind yourself that you have an interest in getting past this issue and that it helps to acknowledge the emotion behind the situation. You might say “I know this is important to both of us and that emotions are strong. How can we team up to find a solution?”

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Listen carefully to what she has to say. Be open minded about her perspective and ideas. Work with her as a partner to brainstorm creative solutions to the problem.

While this approach does not guarantee a perfect solution, it may lead to several creative options that would not have arisen in an adversarial environment. For example, you may agree to certain quiet hours, assisting her with reconfiguring her space to reduce the noise, or sharing the costs of soundproofing a shared wall.

Even if the issue comes to an impasse and is escalated to a third party for resolution, this approach may enable you to develop an ongoing relationship with the owner that is based on respect and understanding.


About the Author

Seth Sinclair

CO-FOUNDER | LEADERSHIP, BUSINESS STRATEGY, MANAGEMENT, COACH, TRAINER, AND FACILITATOR

Seth Sinclair is a leadership coach, management consultant, trainer, and facilitator with a passion for helping his clients achieve their personal and professional goals. Reach out by emailing him at seth@moderndavinci.net or learn more on our About page.