by Penny Steen
When we think about negotiating, what usually springs to mind is two people sitting down together to discuss a contract or a settlement or a term sheet. Sometimes if we are far-seeing, or if we’ve taken negotiation training, we realize that the ability to collaborate also serves us well at home. So while we will say we negotiate in business, and sometimes recognize that we also do so at home, rarely do we consider that we are in continuous negotiation with ourselves, and that it is the outcome of those inner agreements that determine how we live our lives.
Sometimes we collaborate well with ourselves. More often however, our agreements are poor. This is likely due to the fact that we didn’t apply the fundamental rule that underlies all good negotiations, which is to really listen to the other perspective.
Listening takes training and discipline; it doesn’t seem to come naturally to many of us. True, we listen to people in authority. We learned to do that as children. But as children, most of us weren’t given the same treatment—our small voices were ignored or given less weight. Many of us inferred that to mean that what we had to say was unimportant or worthless. And we extrapolated that message further, learning to shush and ignore the quiet voice that was inside us.
When it came time for us to make our own decisions, we needed a strong encouraging voice of our own. But the voice had been shoved down, and couldn’t compete with the clamour of the crowd. So we went along with them, choosing the “right” education, cars, houses, vacations, etc. We may have caught a whisper that said this wasn’t what we really wanted out of life…but it was a voice we’d been taught not to listen to. And if it got loud enough through the years to actually be heard, we shoved it back down with food, booze, and overwork; for we had built up lives that were centered around what we didn’t want…and the getting out of a false life required making decisions that had far-reaching consequences.
And then something happened. Something awful. We lost what we’d learned to call important: the job; the house; the car. The clamour fell away, and we found ourselves saying: “hmmm…I don’t know if I can find my way out of this hole because I sure can’t see a single pinprick of light anywhere.”
And a quiet voice said: “You can get out. Other people have. You hear about them all the time. Just don’t go down the same road again, because it’ll lead you right back to here.”
“What do you mean?” you responded, going to the cupboard and pouring out the fourth drink of the afternoon. “What road are you talking about?”
“You know what road.”
“You mean this? This drink? You think this caused all the trouble? Nah, this isn’t the problem….”
Sometimes it takes a while for that inner voice get strong enough to take a stand—strong enough not to be shut-down by a drink, or the loud clamour of denial, or whatever it is that keeps us back from living the life we want. Sometimes it takes another loss. But if we’re lucky, somehow we’ll remember to listen to that voice again, and within that conversation, make the quiet agreement.