Negotiating Immediate Differences

by Stanley J. Gross, Ed.D.

The purpose of negotiation is to resolve immediate differences. These differences are concrete and situation-specific (for example, what movie to attend or who takes on what household chore). Immediate differences don't linger to periodically frustrate us; in this way, they diverge from enduring differences, the ones that tend to promote continuing conflict and misunderstanding.

Immediate difference negotiation is idea-centered and carries the expectation that the difference is resolvable. This contrasts with the "vulnerable" sharing that is essential to dealing with enduring differences, where the expectation is that the parties will find a way to "live with" the difference.

John and Susan are new to parenting after 12 years of marriage. Following a difficult pregnancy, they recently welcomed twin girls into their family. Since they expected the girls to be a "hand full," they decided that Susan would stay home for the first year and John would be the only family wage earner.

Susan does not mind having to manage on her own during the day, but finds it exasperating that John goes to AA meetings in the evening, just when there is lots to do at home. She would like him to stay with her in the evening and help around the house. Her resentment over his lack of responsiveness to her pleas is beginning to express itself in an old problem for her Ė excessive credit card spending.

John has no objection to sharing responsibility for the girls. He takes care of them on the weekend (together with Susan) or alone when she leaves the house to run errands or to visit family and friends. His problem with her request for assistance in the evening relates to his belief that regular AA attendance is the bedrock of his sobriety program. He has been sober for three years and believes that if he does not keep up with his meetings, he could begin drinking again, a situation that would be disastrous for both him and for his family. He worries about Susan's spending urges because their income has declined markedly from what it was prior to the twin's birth.

The Negotiation Process

The goal of negotiation is to arrive at a compromise solution that allows each party to get some of what he or she wants, but not everything that is wanted. This problem-solving procedure is based on certain rules of engagement.

In a negotiation process:

The parties agree that the purpose of the negotiation is to find a mutual solution rather than to justify any one person's particular position: Too often, arguments continue because the parties insist on being right rather than ending the argument fairly.

An active listening process is used to ensure that each person feels "heard": In a negotiation, each party makes his or her case through the use of simple statements that reflect the speaker's thoughts and feelings. Restating and reflecting back the speaker's main points reassures the speaker that the listener has really gotten the message.

The parties work together to define a "mutual" problem that incorporates each person's individual concerns: In this step of the process, each person makes use of what the other party has told him or her to restate his or her individual problem in such a way that it includes the concerns of both parties.

Susan and John agreed that they had to rethink how they are dealing with evening responsibilities and how they are spending money.

The parties attempt to "brainstorm" possible solutions to the mutual problem: A short amount of time (say, 10 minutes) is set aside for brainstorming, during which each person lists as many solutions to the mutual problem as come to mind. Brainstorming requires the parties to be as creative as possible. The more ideas that are generated, the more likely it is that a mutually satisfying solution can be reached. No idea is a "bad" one, so nothing should be held back and each party should take pains not to criticize solutions offered by the other during this process.

Susan and John came up with a number of possibilities:

Get a "mothers" helper Cut up all credit cards John discontinues AA
Susan goes to Al-Anon meetings Get Johnís sister to ba by -sit John goes to AA downtown
Lock-up credit cards Susan goes back to work Cut back on all expenses
Susan starts exercising Susan and John go on a "date" Get couples' therapy
Reduce number of AA meetings Get financial counseling Keep only one credit card

All ideas that are generated through brainstorming are reviewed: At this point, all ideas (even the odd ones) are examined with an eye toward their potential for resolving the mutual problem. The task here is to identify the three best solutions and to determine the advantages and disadvantages of each.

The following were Susan and John's top three solutions: 1) John goes to AA downtown; 2) Susan goes to Al-Anon meetings; and 3) They restrict their credit card use.

The parties choose a solution: The chosen solution must be one that both parties can "live with," even if it does not reflect the "heart's desire" of either person.

John agreed to brown bag his lunch and to attend noontime AA meetings near his workplace three days a week. Susan agreed to attend one Al-Anon meeting on one of Johnís nights at home and curtail her spending for unnecessary items. They cancelled all but one credit card and kept it at home to be used for "special" purchases that they agreed to talk about and plan for together.

Each person shares what he or she has learned from this process: A critical step that is often overlooked is the "rehashing" of what has been learned by each party. When each person shares what has been learned, each creates a memory of the process that will come in handy the next time an argument erupts.

John learned that in his eagerness to "follow the program," he was being insensitive to his wife's needs. He learned that when he was flexible about how he did what he had to do to stay sober, he could find a way of meeting both his needs and those of his wife. Susan, for her part, became more aware of her compulsion to spend when she was stressed and that she needed to understand better the family dynamics involved in alcoholism. Date published: 11/9/00

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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