Monday, 20 January 2014

Trading partners

How do you deal with it when what you want and what someone else wants (husband, boss, or friend) wants something else?

Answer A: Ignore what the other person wants or what you want (bitch or doormat)

Answer B: Ignore the problem entirely (storing up trouble to burgeon and propagate like a Ponzi scheme before you end up exhausted and plumping back for Answer A)

Answer C: Trade (relies on you having something the other person wants)

Answer D: Negotiate a win-win (may not come naturally and/or is difficult)

Ok so there’s no easy answer.

There is another option which is what many of us heartily wish was a viable answer:

Answer E: Our wants and needs are proactively identified, prioritised and granted from the sheer intuitive and psychic goodness (or guilt) of the other person.

Let me illustrate:

In the 2006 film The Break Up, the Jennifer Anniston character (Brooke) feels unloved and let down by the thoughtlessness of the Vince Vaughn character (Gary), whilst Gary feels nagged:

Brooke: It would be nice if you said thank you and helped me with the dishes

Gary: OK I’ll help you do the damn dishes

Brooke: No, come on, you see, that’s not what I want

Gary: You just said you want me to help you do the dishes

Brooke: I want you to want to do the dishes

Gary: Why would I want to do dishes? Why?

Brooke: See, that’s my whole point!

Gary: Let me see if I’m following this; are you saying that you’re upset because I don’t have a strong desire to clean dishes?

Brooke: No, I’m upset because you don’t have a strong desire to offer to do the dishes.

Gary: I just did!

Brooke: After I asked you!


What Brooke meant of course, which every female watching the film knew immediately, is that she doesn’t give a shit about the dishes. She wants to be loved enough that Gary’s disinclination to wash up loses to his desire to help her.

In negotiation tactics, Brooke's approach here is called 'Appealing to the Giver' i.e. appealing to, or being dependant on, the other person's desire to give. This is a lovely thought but is an approach fraught with disappointment because is based on a win-lose solution.

Human history will easily show that it is a far safer bet to rely on selfishness over selflessness. So a solution which appeals to the other person’s ‘Taking side’ must, on average, succeed more often.

The easiest way to do this is to Trade.

Trading is easy to do when the stakes are relatively low and when both parties have ‘resource’ to trade with.

For instance, because my husband and I both work and want to spend time with our child, exercise and socialise, time is accepted as equal value to us both and, (extremely importantly), used for similar purposes by both. ‘I’ll go out Thursday night and you can go out Friday night’ doesn’t make me feel like either a bitch or a doormat, nor am I likely to burst into tears if one time he wants to trade a slightly different way.

But the trade agreement falls over when the value or significance of time is different for each. This happened to me when I was on maternity leave (“can’t you get home at 7 o’clock when you say 7 o’clock I’ve already bathed the baby now” being translated as “You pretended you wanted a family but now you’ve got me up the duff and trapped in this clearly loveless relationship, you are out having fun safe in the knowledge I’ll bathe your bloody baby for you).

I had a lot of time. Time wasn’t what I needed. I didn’t have a lot of company. He thought I wanted time but I wanted his company.  Gary in the film thought Brooke wanted help but she wanted consideration.

Stands to reason that if your trading partner doesn’t even know what resource is at stake you aren’t going to feel fulfilled. It’s like asking for a boiled fish but secretly wanting a lovely rack of BBQ ribs. The fish may come your way (maybe maybe) but it sure as hell won’t hit the spot.

Of course you can only trade if you’ve got something the other person wants and that is of accepted equal value. Therefore, with more nebulous things like ‘love’, ‘company’, or ‘thoughtfulness’, trading is difficult if not impossible. It is not the same to say ‘you think of my needs above yours today and I will think about your needs over mine tomorrow’ (especially difficult if you are secretly resentful that you are always aware of his needs, whatever day it is).

Definitely then, the ideal approach is to negotiate for a win-win i.e. to co-operate, not compete for a win-lose.
Ah, added complication, he needs to know whether you are going for win-lose (competing) or win-win (co-operating) else you’ll end up battered:

  • If you both cooperate, you will both have good outcomes.
  • If one cooperates and the other competes, the co-operator will get a terrible outcome and the competitor will get a great outcome.
  • If both compete, you will both have mediocre outcomes.
  • In the face of uncertainty about what strategy the other side will adopt, each side's best choice is to compete.

Since most of us don’t have our conversations holding out large placards which say ‘today I think we should co-operate because I don’t feel I have a resource to trade with’, the problem of ensuring everyone is on the same page can be overcome by what is known as ‘framing’ i.e. how you start the conversation by articulating the problem:

Frame 1: ‘I never get time to go out but you go to the pub every Friday’ = I want to compete or trade but, as I’ve just reminded you, you already get what you want so it’s not in your interests to change unless I can trade another resource of equal value and this is a very complicated sentence but not nearly as complicated as the process of winning from such a desperate starting position

Frame 2: ‘Didn’t you say you wanted a poker night every week? How about you have it here on a Thursday and I’ll go out and leave you boys in peace’? = Think of the poker! You know you want the poker! Think of the Nachos you could eat in peace! And I’ll be in such a good mood when I get home I won’t even notice the crumbs!

I find the framing /negotiating for a win-win thing comes naturally at work but doesn’t even make an appearance with the terrible nebulous love-and-care-based things at home. There is so much at stake, emotions can be so near the surface, and the value we place on ourselves and on each other so dependant on not having to explicitly negotiate that even to think about framing / setting objectives etc. seems manipulative, unnatural and unromantic.

But, as a wise person said to me recently “there is a difference between natural and magical”. To expect, in our busy lives, someone else (particularly males) to be psychic / have the required magical powers to divine what we want and then to have the goodness to give it to us at personal expense, is not only naive, it diminishes both dismisses everthing we have as not trade-worthy (and being wonderful, strong, talented people, our resouces are valuable and we, not they, need to be the first to recognise them as such) and ignores our ability to use our brains and intuition to come up with a solution that works for both sides.