I've spent a decade teaching people how to get what they need at work through negotiation. But during the pandemic, I learned just how valuable these skills could be for another set of clients: my spouse and kids.

By Alexandra Carter
April 30, 2021
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An illustration of people shaking hands.
Credit: Illustration: Yeji Kim.

When we think about negotiation, many of us picture the workplace: asking for a promotion, or making the case for flex time. It's easy to see how those conversations can make a meaningful difference in our lives. But the most important negotiations you have may be those inside your home.

The fact is parents, especially moms, are burning out during this pandemic. We often struggle to get space to work, time off to recuperate, and relief from the mental load. We battle with our kids over homework and screen time. Learning to negotiate with confidence can help every aspect of our lives.

You see, negotiation isn't just reserved for haggling over money at a conference table. A negotiation is just a conversation. It's an opportunity to talk honestly about needs and priorities. So, that discussion you had with your spouse over the home office? A negotiation. Those conversations with your tween over screen time? Also a negotiation. And that "primal scream" feeling you have inside, the "I need a full weekend where no one is touching me" feeling? Definitely a negotiation.

As a negotiation trainer, wife, and mother to a 10-year-old daughter, I've never spent more time at home than I have this year. During this time of remote work, I've used what I teach at the United Nations to negotiate parenthood and life with the people closest to me. Here's how you can, too.

Solve the Right Problem

The key to great negotiating is to start at the beginning: figuring out the problem you need to solve. Let's say, for example, that I see my daughter zoning out on her computer and start to feel frustration. I could just walk over, slam the top shut and yell, "That's it—you're done for the day." But what is it I'm trying to accomplish? I don't want endless screen time, but what do I want? More time outside? Attention to homework? To improve the quality of her sleep?

In my case, I identified the real problem I wanted to solve: how much my daughter was reading. So instead of slamming the laptop shut in that moment, I waited until later and started a broader conversation about how we could make time for reading. We created a solution that made both of us happy—an incentive system where she receives screen time "points" for each book she finishes.

When you identify what you want for the future—like help cleaning the kitchen every night, or time off on Saturday mornings—rather than what's bugging you in the present, you set yourself and your family up for a clearer, more successful conversation.

Lead with Open Questions

The best negotiators know leading with questions, whether at home or asking for a promotion in the office, gets them the best results. And not just any questions, but open ones, such as "What," "How," and "Tell me." These are the questions that open people up, build trust, and help you create a better solution.

But so often when negotiating with family—especially when emotions are running high—we start the conversation with an assumption or a judgment instead. At the beginning of the pandemic, I started to feel resentful because my husband was in our home office while I was working from whatever flat surface was available—the kitchen table, the dining room, and occasionally the floor. One Wednesday at 9 a.m., just as he was heading to his office and I was setting up at the kitchen table, I finally exploded, saying, "You know, my work is important too!"

Not my most successful moment. I regrouped, came back to my husband on Sunday afternoon, and said, "Let's talk about space. Tell me, what does your week look like?" We opened up our calendars and we saw that my husband had lots of solo work, while my calendar was full of group lectures and media interviews. Together, we decided I would use the home office that week. And it stuck. I ended up remodeling it to be my own style, and my husband has found a quiet space in the attic that suits him well.

Bottom line: we change the conversation when we lead with open questions like "What do you need?" "How can we work together to solve this problem?" and "Tell me what this means to you?"

Silence Helps

Want to get people talking? Be silent. It sounds counter-intuitive, but silence is one of the best ways to build connection and solve problems.

Some days after virtual school wraps up and we're cooking dinner, I'll turn to my daughter and say, "Tell me all about school today!" Then I wait. And wait. Sometimes, it seems like she's completely ignoring me—she's looking in the fridge, playing with a fidget toy—and then, the trickle of information starts. The longer I'm silent, the more she opens up and tells me the things that are really important. Same with my husband. We take walks together every Sunday where we discuss our week. One week I tried extra hard to stay quiet—and that was the week he shared something personal that was on his mind.

Silence even works when you're negotiating a solution. Remember the conversation I had with my daughter about screen time, and the resolution we reached? Her idea. I simply asked her, "What ideas do you have for ways we could balance reading and screens?" and waited a full minute. Finally, she said, "What if I earned points for reading and we used those for screens?" Done. And nothing sticks better than a solution they created themselves!

Show How Everyone Benefits

When proposing a solution to a problem, you'll have the highest chance of success when you show the other person how it helps them, too. You can do that by using a powerful formula called the "I/we ask." Basically that means: "Here's what I'm proposing, and here's how we all benefit."

Frame your proposal in a way that meets their needs. For example: "You've said you really dislike having me on your back all the time about screens. I don't like that either. This system lets you be in charge of how much time you earn." Or: "I need Saturday mornings off for yoga. When I have that time to exercise, breathe, and recharge, I feel so much more patient the rest of the weekend." In this way, you've negotiated to get what you need and you've written their victory speech, too.

Alexandra Carter is a professor at Columbia Law School and an award-winning negotiation trainer to the United Nations. Her bestselling book, Ask for More, helps people ask the right questions to create better negotiations, in the workplace and at home.