The mindset behind successful relationships

Daniel Shapiro, Ph.D., Founder and Director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program

Harvard professor Daniel Shapiro is the founder and director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program. His approach looks at negotiations through the human lens – which emotions tend to create an obstacle to negotiations, and which can act as an asset to negotiations. His decades-long research uncovered five basic concerns which all humans share, regardless of culture, background, or type of relationship.

These five core concerns convey human needs that are important to almost everyone in virtually every relational situation, not just negotiations. By addressing these concerns managers can lead more effectively, teams can connect better and personal relationships can be nurtured. In other words, you could look at them as top strategies for creating and nurturing human bonds.

Every time we interact, we’re in a negotiation

We think we deal or can deal with everything rationally, but emotions come into play in every human relation, and there is always the potential for a clash. Emotions can be complex to understand, so the five core concerns are a framework to navigate this complex world more effectively. They are basic human motivations that tend to stir up a lot of emotions.

Core concerns

The five motivations that truly matter within human social interactions are:

  • Appreciation: The desire to feel understood and honestly valued is universal. We all crave understanding and honest validation of who we are. Cooperation increases markedly when there is a mutual feeling of appreciation.
  • Autonomy – the freedom to make decisions without someone imposing a decision on us is another universal human need. When autonomy is restricted, negative emotions surface almost automatically.
  • Affiliation – the sense of connection on the personal, human level, beyond just a team or group affiliation, helps foster a relationship that aims for a mutually constructive outcome, a win-win situation. It helps create a mindset not of me-versus-you, but instead the two of us, side by side, facing the same challenge.
  • Status recognition – the need to get the recognition that people feel they deserve is crucial. Acknowledging one’s expertise and substantive experience – especially when these support the team’s work – can create positive emotions. Competition for status creates the opposite effect.
  • Role – the wish to have a role that fulfills one’s standards of appreciation, affiliation, autonomy, and status is equally universal. A fulfilling role has a clear purpose; is personally meaningful; and defines who you really are.
  • These core issues are the key concerns humans feel in every interaction, and therefore the basic concepts to be nourished in any relationship. They can be suppressed, or they can be opened up for positive opportunities. Whichever way you may choose to work with them – at work or in your private environment – just do it, because it will ensure better connections with the people in your life.

These core issues are the key concerns humans feel in every interaction, and therefore the basic concepts to be nourished in any relationship. They can be suppressed, or they can be opened up for positive opportunities. Whichever way you may choose to work with them – at work or in your private environment – just do it, because it will ensure better connections with the people in your life.

Download full conversation (39,29 min)

Putting it into practice

Putting these concepts into practice is not complicated. In your relationships with self, significant other(s) or with colleagues,

Reflect back on conflict moments or situations – which of those concerns is/are the most relevant for you?

  • Where do you feel you are mostly triggered? Can you see a pattern for when you get upset, irritated, or feel hurt?
  • Which of these core concerns is not being answered?
  • What can you do about it? How can you bring up the issue in a constructive way, to reach a win-win solution? Can you explain to the other side what triggers you in terms of one of these basic needs that is not being answered?

Now reflect back on these same conflict moments or situations, this time from the other person’s point of view.

  • Where do you feel they are being triggered?
  • Which of these core concerns is not being answered, or not sufficiently so? Consider asking them in a moment of peace so that you can better understand them.
  • What, if anything, could you do about this? (for example, express your appreciation more clearly and frequently; respect and invite their expertise; or give them more freedom to do their thing, or simply be themselves)

Reflect on your role(s) – at work and in your personal life.

  • Which roles are more/less meaningful to you?
  • Which ones energize, or drain you?
  • In which role, if any, do you feel stuck? (for example, being the constant critic). If this role often creates conflict, what could you do about it?

Think about one relationship that is important to you. Could you improve or strengthen this relationship in a conscious way, without waiting for conflict to erupt? For instance,

  • Could you actively show more appreciation?
  • Could you make a more deliberate effort to connect meaningfully?
  • Can you see how the other side contributes to your collaboration (whether at work or in your personal life) and let them know how meaningful their contribution is?

If you are a manager,

Share these core concerns with your team – what they are and why they are useful.Open a discussion within the team:-

  • how do we ensure that everyone feels appreciation within the team?
  • how can we help everyone feel that they have a fulfilling role?

Use these core themes to analyze your interactions with your customers: are these core concerns respected in dealings with customers?Make sure there is a culture of appreciation within the team. A kind word goes a long way.

  • give positive feedback freely
  • encourage honest compliments
  • celebrate achievements together

Give your people autonomy even in small things, for example

  • the freedom to make their own decisions on timing and scheduling, or perhaps on the nature of a particular project.
  • consult your colleagues before making a decision and listen to the alternatives they suggest, to ensure equality in representation.
  • empower people by helping them focus on their circle of control, where they feel they have influence.

Encourage more personal connection within the team. We all have a human instinct for connection, and we need it.

  • create smaller breakout rooms (max 3-4 people) in an online gathering
  • invite the people sitting in a breakout room not to jump immediately to solutions but to get to know each other personally, even for a couple of moments
  • create space at the start of a meeting so people can connect, even if for a short while. This is particularly important in the virtual world of face to face restrictions.

With regards to status, look carefully at people’s strengths and acknowledge them. Everyone has got some strengths, and everyone wants to be recognized for these strengths.

  • show vulnerability as a manager – ask for advice and feedback. You can’t see or know everything.
  • emphasize the ‘we’, the recognition that everyone’s talents contribute to the success of the team.
  • acknowledging another’s status before acknowledging your own
  • recognize the limits of status: the opinions of a person with a higher status are not automatically correct.

Check regularly with your team how comfortable everyone is in their role:

  • discuss with your colleagues how fulfilling their role is, and to what extent it reflects their purpose and personal interests
  • suggest adopting different positions for different situations: can a devil’s advocate try to play an empathic role? can a pleaser try to express their wishes more assertively?

check with yourself as a manager (or a human in a personal interaction) – what role would be most sensible for you to play to get as much value out of any particular interaction?

If you find yourself in a truly emotionally-charged conflict,

  • Use a code word (Vertigo is one suggestion) to signal that both sides are locked in an unhelpful conflict.
  • Ask yourself – what’s my purpose in this interaction? Is it to show my superiority, or to reach a solution together?
  • Empower yourself and show appreciation. If you can say a kind word, the other side will take off their gloves. They will open up to listen to you. It takes courage to be able to listen to the other side and ask “why are you so angry” with a learning mindset, but it will get you out of a deadlock.

By addressing and using the five core concerns to manage emotional response, relationships at home and at work can be greatly improved. Understanding and working with these strategies transforms cooperation – whether personal or work-related – from a potentially uncomfortable, unproductive process, into an effective interaction of mutual benefit.

Negotiating the nonnegotiable

For a better understanding of the psychology of succesful relationships, and powerful insights that will help you deal with conflicts more effectively, in both your personal an professional life, see Dan’s book ‘negotiating the nonnegotiable’.