Emotions and Negotiating in a Family Business

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An article about negotiating in the December issue of the Harvard Business Review, “Control the Negotiation Before It Begins,” got me thinking about how the typical strategies used in corporate America aren’t always going to be appropriate in family businesses. This article, and many others on the same topic, suggests that most negotiation experts focus on strategy and tactics. However, research shows we can regulate emotions like anxiety, anger, excitement, and disappointment during the process to help achieve a better outcome. As a family business advisor, I thought this seems especially relevant for family businesses.

Anxiety and anger are the two emotions most difficult to control, and their effect is magnified in family business scenarios such as when parents are negotiating with children or siblings are negotiating with each other. With the goal of creating a win-win scenario and ensuring personal relationships aren’t indelibly damaged, it’s important to find ways to work through emotions to reach a consensus that pleases everyone.

One way to do this is by using four key behaviors often associated with having difficult conversations:

  • Be intentional.

Identify your ideal outcome prior to the start of the negotiation.

  • Clarify the issues.

Be objective in describing behavior and providing data rather than attacking the other person.

  • Listen non-defensively.

Hear the other person’s perspective and adjust your emotions to fit theirs.

  • Take the high road.

Acknowledge the other person’s feelings and perspective, even if you don’t agree with it.

Another way to prepare to overcome emotions during negotiations is to answer a series of questions before the conversation begins. The Top 12 Questions for Change, taken from the Question Thinking Workbook by Maralee G. Adams, include:

  • What do I want?
  • What are my choices?
  • What assumptions am I making?
  • How else can I think about this?
  • What is the other person thinking, feeling, needing and wanting?
  • How can I turn this into a win-win?

These two strategies are applicable for any negotiation, but when it comes to dealing with a family business, employing cognitive behavioral strategies is even more critical. For example, you must be clear about your values; if having Christmas dinner with the whole family is important to you, you want to take care not to burn bridges during business-related negotiations.

Money is at the root of most negotiations in any business. With respect to dealing with family members, it’s a good idea to remove as much emotion as possible from this hot button issue, considering if it’s worth destroying the family over “just money.” In my experience as a family business advisor, I’ve found when family members’ values are aligned and everyone’s perspective is taken into account during negotiations, the end result can be a stronger bond and a more focused business.

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