Essential skills: Negotiation

Business Success Concept With Partner, Partnership Giving Fist B

Being a proficient negotiator has always been a prerequisite for living a balanced life; and in the current challenging climate negotiation skills have become even more important. The precarious work-life juggle many families had been maintaining has all but collapsed as the rug of support is pulled out from under them. Parents are currently working out how to navigate work while looking after children without the help of grandparents – who may themselves need extra help. I suspect there’s a lot of negotiation going on at present so this week I’m sharing some tips for success.

Have a clear picture of what it is you want to agree

Many of us have suddenly been thrust into an unprecedented and complex situation. We need a creative approach to resolving it. In my book I recommend Solutions Focus (a tool from the positive psychology stable) as the means to identifying your desired destination. Take some time to consider what a balanced future would look like for you and your family.

Allow yourself to daydream about the best possible solution within the current constraints you face. Ignore the logical left brain and trust that your creative right brain will show you a solution. Aim to paint a detailed picture of what it looks like to live that solution. The clearer you are on where you’re trying to get to, the easier it will be to share that vision with others; and to identify the steps you need to take to get there.

Aim for a win-win outcome

It’s always easier to negotiate when you know what’s in it for the other party and work with them to achieve a win-win outcome. If you’re living in a dual parent household it’s likely your partner will also be feeling challenged to find the right balance. There’s plenty of evidence that younger fathers in particular are keen to get more fully involved in family life; so now’s the time to renegotiate what that might look like.

I realise many businesses are struggling, but this is also an apt moment to remind  employers we all have a life outside of work; and we need their help to maintain the juggle. Specifically you may want to ask for clarity on the outputs expected of you at this time; and when your employer needs you to deliver these.

Negotiation is a journey, not a battle

In my work I suggest to clients that they view negotiation as an ongoing conversation, rather than an argument to be resolved on the basis of a single exchange. We’ve all found that things which seem logical in theory don’t always work in practice. As you agree adjustments to working and living arrangements you will learn what works and what doesn’t. And then you’ll need to negotiate further adjustments. In the long run you’ll be more effective; but in the short run there will be a lot of course-correcting going on.


Albert Einstein reportedly said: everything should be made as simple as possible but no simpler (although he didn’t exactly use those words!). It’s a great dictum to live by. The simpler the arrangements, the more likely we are to uphold them. Things may change in the future – let go of the need to know all the outcomes in advance. Focus on the present and on making small adjustments as you go.

Many of us are currently facing the challenge of navigating to get our needs met while also meeting the needs of those around us. As we’re forced to re-think the way we live and work we also have an unprecedented opportunity to rebalance our lives.

Rebalancing – one small step at a time

Asian Toddler Boy Climbs Up The Wooden Stairs

It’s week three of our journey to #rebalance work and life in 2020. So far I’ve covered the reasons why we should #rebalance; and shared the key principle underpinning successful balance.

This week I want to turn the spotlight on our approach to self-change; by suggesting we start small and grow into it. Radical change often proves difficult to sustain. And when that radical change depends on co-operation from those around us (as is often the case when it comes to work-life balance) the challenge increases. At a workshop several years ago I heard one of the wisest pieces of advice ever given to me:

“Change happens best when nobody notices”

The workshop was an introduction to Solutions Focus – an approach to change grounded in positive psychology – and the words were spoken by the workshop leader. Solutions Focus encourages the taking of small steps towards a desired future state. Over time these small steps can lead to big results. In my book I explain how we can apply this approach to #rebalancing our lives.

Stewart Friedman from the Wharton Business School has been pioneering a concept he calls Total Leadership for many years. He recommends we design small experiments to help us find more balance in our lives; and try them out for a set period of time to see what happens. The idea is to look at wins that benefit every area of our lives while considering how the people around us might also benefit from those wins.

Professor Friedman recommends we set an intention to pursue small wins that create big change. Massive shifts often fail because they’re difficult to manage. According to him the best experiments allow us to try something new while minimising the risks associated with change. Our fear of failure is reduced; and as we see results we become inspired to go further – building stakeholder support along the way.

Many of us will have come across a variant of the ‘action priority matrix’ that groups activities into four quadrants: .quick wins, major projects, fill ins and thankless tasks. If you think about the changes that would help #rebalance your life, which ones are quick wins and which are major projects?

I suggest directing your efforts in the first instance to the quick wins. (those having the highest impact for the lowest effort). Pause and consider what you’ve learnt and what progress you’ve made. If you’re ready for a bigger change you can build on your success by taking on a ‘major project’. This will demand more time, effort and planning but will lead you further in the direction of your preferred work-life balance.

For the most part we live our lives in gradual and constant change. Landscapes shift with the seasons, our children grow slowly day by day until we notice they’re no longer the helpless infants we once held but young adults ready to fly the nest; and even our own bodies change as we age.

This week I encourage you to harness the changes going on in your life in ways that will support better balance going forward – both for your own benefit and that of those around you.

Tuning your radar

Beautiful woman pilot wearing uniform with epauletes, headset si

Living and working in balanced ways often requires us to navigate restrictive corporate cultures that tell us “it won’t work here”. Overcoming these barriers can feel challenging – particularly if we believe we’re pioneering something new. However, in many cases perception differs from reality.

Working with corporate clients I’ve come to learn there’s often more going on under the radar than is at first apparent. When it comes to flexible working, HR policies may offer limited options; while the corporate culture insists these are only appropriate for junior roles. Rather than becoming frustrated we need to re-tune our radar so we can tease out valuable information that will support us. Specifically we must focus on three questions:

Where can I find suitable role models?

Not all flexible working happens in plain sight. People will often agree an informal arrangement with their boss on the proviso they keep it to themselves. If they work in other parts of the organisation we may never know that the off-site meeting this afternoon is actually attendance at a child’s sports day; or that a key member of another department always works at home on Mondays.

In an ideal world every employer would publicise their flexible working Role Models and make life easier for everyone. But we know this doesn’t always happen so we need to ask around. Internal networks that support women and parents are a good place to start.

Who has the expertise to help me shape my working pattern?

When I begin a corporate assignment one of my first tasks is often to identify what managers already know about flexible working. Typically I’ll ask them to share their experience – both within the current organisation and with previous employers.

I’m always surprised by the breadth of knowledge that emerges. This then becomes a key resource for developing innovative flexible working arrangements that suit the business.

What behaviour does this organisation reward?

Psychologists will tell you

“the behaviour that’s rewarded is the behaviour that continues”

So we need to understand what’s currently being rewarded and in most cases to change it. Far too many workplaces continue to reward presenteeism and long working hours.

Over the years I’ve come across employees passed over for lucrative assignments because they were working at home. Truly a case of ‘out of sight and out of mind’. Equally at risk are those who work less than full-time. There’s often a perception that stretch assignments require an individual to ‘put in the hours’.

If that’s common practice in your workplace what strategy can you develop to ensure you’re not penalised? One simple step is to ensure you’re clear about the outputs expected of you and broadcast your achievements. Such behaviour may feel uncomfortable for many women who see it as boasting. But maintaining a firm focus on outputs and achievements can change conversations. And conversations in turn can slowly change expectations and behaviours.

The more we know about what’s already working under the radar in our organisation the more powerful we can be in progressing our own balanced working. We can refute the “it won’t work here” claims and explore new possibilities with colleagues who’ve ‘been there: done that’.


Fostering a Balanced Working Culture

Appreciative Inquiry is a change process developed by David Cooperrider towards the end of the last century. Generally included in the broad category of ‘Positive Psychology’ it’s an approach likely to appeal to women for three reasons.

  1. It’s conversation based – playing to women’s interpersonal skills. It recognises our human tendency to make meaning through dialogue: the “social construction of reality”. And it’s inclusive: extending the conversation to as many people as possible.
  2. The questions asked are the “tools for change”. Not just any questions but well constructed ones that sow the potential for change by directing our attention. For women in the workplace it offers a way to take the lead without being judged as controlling.
  3. The focus is on building the future – the new and emergent – not on fixing the old. It’s a perspective likely to resonate with parents. When we bring up our children our focus is generally on future potential.

Cooperrider has outlined five key principles of Appreciative Inquiry which we can put to use in fostering change towards a more balanced working culture.

  1. Organisations are living human constructions not mechanical systems that exist independently of the people within them. In many cases they are literally man-made with cultures established in the last century to support male ways of working. What this means is that we can reconstruct our organisations to better meet changing social expectations. Our mothers and grandmothers started this process when they asked for arrangements such as part-time, term-time and job-share. It’s down to us to continue the process by re-shaping work at more senior levels so that organisations become more truly inclusive for women.
  2. Inquiry is intervention. When we ask the right questions and ensure the right focus we begin the process of change. So rather than believing flexible working is impossible at senior levels we ask “where and when have we seen someone in a senior role successfully work flexibly – in this organisation or this industry?” One of the most powerful questions I ask when beginning a consulting assignment is “who in this organisation has experience of flexible working arrangements at senior levels?” It’s always surprising to learn how much knowledge already exists under the radar. And these people become the organisation’s ‘database of experts’ – a key resource able to provide insights into how specific arrangements can succeed.
  3. Human organisations are more like open books – constantly being re-written – than closed systems. So Appreciative Inquiry uses storytelling to identify our ‘cultural artefacts’. What do our current role models for success look like? What behaviour is rewarded? What stories do we tell ourselves about the organisation and its culture? We then begin to re-write these stories looking for new heroes and new achievements. Rather than talking about the manager who works long hours and drives her people hard we begin to talk about the one who manages to work a flexible arrangement successfully and the many benefits this has brought to her staff and clients.
  4. Our collective imagination is an infinite resource for changing organisations. Rather than tying up our energy in analysing what’s going wrong we ask ourselves how it will look when things go well. The “miracle question” I talk about in this post is a great place to start.
  5. The momentum for change is more effective when positive energy is harnessed. We know this is true. When we become excited about the potential benefits gained by achieving a positive goal we’re likely to put more energy into the process.

A short blog post like this cannot do justice to a complex process like Appreciative Inquiry. But – in the spirit of the process – it can begin to draw attention to what’s important and to ask the right question. So: where are you focusing your energy – in overcoming objections to flexible working or in creating a shared vision of how it could work for everyone?

How to tell if you’re leading a balanced life

We spend so much time reading and talking about work life balance and yet most of us conclude our life is not in balance. Why is that?

Put simply: most of us don’t know what good balance means to us. And if we don’t know where we’re going how will we know when we get there?

At a conference a few years back a highly qualified coach – on hearing I was a member of the British Psychological Society’s working group on Work-Life Balance – asked “So what’s the formula for balance?” I shared with him – and now share with you – the conclusion I’ve gathered from trawling the research evidence.

There is no single formula for balance – because one size doesn’t fit all. Balance is a personal thing and how it looks for you will change throughout your life. Even the question “what is work life balance?” can be hard to answer. The best working definition I’ve come across is one developed by two Australian academics – Thomas Kalliath and Paula Brough:

“Work-Life Balance is the individual perception that work and non-work activities are compatible and promote growth in accordance with an individual’s current life priorities”.

I think it’s a good definition – but how do we translate it into something that helps us in practical terms? How do we identify what works for us? I favour a simple approach based on Solutions Focus (a branch of Positive Psychology):

Set aside some time when you won’t be disturbed. At least ten minutes – you can always return to this exercise later – but up to half an hour if possible.

Relax. Take a deep breath. Consider the following question:

Imagine you went to sleep this evening and overnight a “miracle happened”. When you wake in the morning you have your ideal work-life balance.

How would you know? What would tell you?

How would you feel? What would you be thinking? What would you be doing? What would you be seeing? Hearing? What else would tell you this “miracle” has happened?

Write down your answers as fully as you can.

The idea is that rather than trying to find the solution from inside the problem, we look at it from a place where it’s been solved and then identify how to get there. It’s loosely based on the famous quote by Albert Einstein “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that we used when we created them”.

With this approach you gain a clearer idea of what would work for you – what you need at this time. And with that clearer roadmap you’re more likely to get there!