Five Steps to Better Family Negotiations

By John A. Davis and Deepak Malhotra

Originally published in HBS Working Knowledge (July 2007)

Negotiations between family members who own a business are different—different from negotiations between non-family members and also different from negotiations between family members who don’t have a business. This is because family relationships are distinctive kinds of relationships, and having a family business raises the stakes of—and often complicates—a family negotiation.

Consider first what sets family relationships apart. Relatives (especially in nuclear families) typically have long-standing relationships that are based on strong emotional ties and lifelong feelings of dependency. These characteristics lead to stronger loyalty and sensitivity to one another but also greater reactivity in their interactions. Family relationships also have deeply ingrained patterns that have developed over years of interacting. Relatives develop and play certain roles in their families, which tend to become fixed and limit the ways family members interact. Some of these patterns and roles can aid communication and negotiation, and some can derail communication and dispute resolution. In addition, communication between family members is notoriously complicated. Because of the sensitivity of their relationships, relatives struggle between openness and caution in their statements to one another. Family members also tend to have difficulty listening to one another without judging what they hear in the context of countless prior experiences that may have little to do with the current topic they are discussing.

In addition to these factors that apply to all family relationships, family members who are in business together have a lot at stake and feel pressured to consider what’s good not only for the family but also for the business and its owners. There is generally a lot more for family members to manage—and negotiate over—in a family business system. Issues such as dividends and reinvestment, nepotism and professionalism, loyalty to stakeholders, and organizational change are ever present; they can be tripwires that spark intense feelings and have wide-ranging implications for the business, family, and owners. In many cases, family members have multiple roles in the system, like father-owner-manager, daughter-employee, or aunt-owner. These multiple roles and ties can create more shared objectives and as a consequence, more potential for value creation. However, these multiple roles and ties can be confusing to coordinate. Relatives can experience role confusion (should I act as a father or boss, a daughter or vice president?) and struggle over the appropriate role to play in a particular negotiation (e.g., is this a father-daughter negotiation or a boss-employee negotiation?). In vaguely defined situations, there is increased opportunity for misunderstanding and conflict.

But given the distinctive nature of negotiations for families in business, 5 basic principles of negotiation that have proven relevant in a wide variety of deal-making and dispute-resolution cases can help family negotiations to be productive while protecting family relationships. Some of the 5 principles of effective negotiation are easier for family members in family business systems to apply, and others are more difficult. But all 5 principles of effective negotiation can be successfully leveraged in negotiations between family members in family business systems. We will review the principles and their applicability to family negotiations below.

1. Analyze The Negotiation Space

The negotiation space consists of all parties that are affected by the negotiation, or that can affect the negotiation. Before you negotiate, it is critical that you consider the interests, the power, and the constraints facing each party. In the case of family businesses, many of the parties affected by a negotiation, or able to affect it, will be around for a long time. It is dangerous to negotiate only considering the interests of those at the bargaining table when those who are not at the table will be affected by what is negotiated and can assert their rights or power in the future.


The negotiation space in a family business system is often extensive and typically complex, involving family members, employees, and owners of the business, and also may involve key stakeholders of the family business system (e.g., customers and suppliers of the business, members of the community in which the family lives, etc.). Because family members in a family business system have highly interrelated lives, even if a relative is not directly involved in a negotiation, he or she might have a keen interest in its outcome and be able to affect the outcome. For example, if a father and his son are negotiating over the son’s employee compensation, the negotiation space is likely to include (among others) the son’s immediate boss, the son’s coworkers, his sister (who is considering joining the business next year), and his mother. The wife-mother may not be a manager, board member, or owner, and have no official say in this matter, but she may still have a strong influence on both the father and the son, and her support may be critical for reaching a negotiated outcome that everyone finds acceptable and fair.

2. Don’t Try To Beat The Other Side

Winning in a negotiation doesn’t necessarily mean that the other party needs to lose. On the contrary, most successful negotiations entail the possibility of mutual value creation, compatible if not aligned interests, and cooperation. In fact, trying to beat the other side often results in negative results for both sides. The person inflicting injury will almost always end up losing—psychologically, socially, and/or financially—as well. This is obvious in a negotiation between family members who want or need to keep a mutually supportive family relationship.

A typical strength of family negotiations is that family members generally prefer to reach mutually acceptable outcomes in their negotiations. This constructive attitude is due in no small part to the strength of family ties: Typically, family members are genuinely interested in one another’s welfare and prefer to avoid conflict because of its effect on future interactions. But some family relationships are weakened to the point where beating the other side is consciously or unconsciously desired by at least 1 party in the negotiation. So it is worth thinking through whether you wish to work together with the other side to negotiate and resolve conflicts—or whether you wish to “win.” If it’s the latter, hopefully you will have a friend or advisor discourage you from this path.

3. Understand The Other Party’s Interests, Constraints, And Perspective

Many people see negotiation as an opportunity to persuade and influence the other side to give them what they want. As a result, most people do not go into negotiation with the goal of listening to and learning about the other party. This is unfortunate, because to get what you want in negotiation, you often need to understand the other side’s needs and interests so that you can “give a little to get a little (or a lot).” Even if the other side is entirely willing to help and is ready to give you what you want, it may be critical that you understand the constraints that he or she faces in meeting your demands. In other words, effective negotiation requires that you understand the other side’s interests and constraints, and that the other party understands your interests and constraints.

Most family members are typically well intentioned when they negotiate, and one would think that such an orientation would make it easy for family members to listen to each other’s perspective and to learn about each other’s interests and constraints. But this isn’t the norm for several reasons. First, relatives tend to be less curious and inquiring about their relatives than they are of others they know less well. This stems partly from an assumption—common among family members—that they already know what the other party wants, likes, and needs. Second, the long history of a family can also institutionalize roles for family members that are rather intractable, making it difficult, for example, for parents, children, and siblings to see each other as they are currently rather than as they were when they were younger. Third, because families generally fear conflict, they avoid certain conversations (that may be useful or necessary in a negotiation) for fear it will touch on a sensitive issue or encourage personal criticism that they won’t know how to manage. While this might alleviate tension in the short run, it also perpetuates the status quo. The consequence: negotiations that involve listening, learning, and the exchange of authentic views between peers do not become the norm in most families.

Ironically, it turns out, people in close relationships (such as spouses) often negotiate worse outcomes than do people who care less about their counterparts!1 Why? Because those in close relationships often avoid making their own interests and priorities known to others—even when these are extremely important issues to them—and instead, compromise across the board in order to avoid being perceived as greedy or overly self-interested. This makes it incumbent on family members to encourage others to identify their core interests and concerns.

4. Avoid Single-issue Negotiations: Identify And Negotiate Multiple Issues Simultaneously

Value is created in negotiation when each party gets what it values most, and makes concessions on issues that the other side values more. But for this to happen, you need to identify all of the issues that are of concern to 1 or more of the parties, and to negotiate multiple issues simultaneously. People will often get stuck on the most salient issue in a negotiation (e.g., salary or status) and spend too much time haggling over that 1 issue. Or, even when they understand that there are a lot of issues to resolve, they will go through the issues 1 at a time—and then argue excessively about their incompatible demands on each issue. Negotiators who negotiate multiple issues simultaneously are more easily able to recognize value-creating tradeoffs. Because of the complex negotiation space in which business families operate, and because family members in business have many overlapping goals and interests, family members generally are negotiating multiple issues simultaneously. But they are not always doing so consciously, transparently, or systematically enough.

While any multi-issue negotiation is going to be complicated, the likely outcome is considerably worsened when negotiators become overly focused on a single issue or dimension. The far superior approach is for all parties involved to work together to identify all of the issues that are relevant in the current negotiation, and then identify which issues are most important to each person (and which issues each person can concede on).

5. Negotiate Over Interests, Not Positions

Effective negotiators get past stated positions (what the party demands) and understand the underlying interests (why the party wants what it demands). Often, disputes over positions will be irreconcilable, whereas a focus on interests will lead to a mutually acceptable agreement. Some families are exceptional at encouraging family members to dream and explore their authentic interests and to express these interests within the family. These families have cultures where family members can talk openly about their goals, needs, and fears. If a family member doesn’t know what his or her interests really are, a supportive family can encourage the family member to talk about possible scenarios and gradually uncover his or her true interests. This process requires patience and a nonjudgmental and positive attitude about the family member and his or her possible choices. In a trusting environment where an individual’s true needs, goals, and fears can be expressed, a negotiation over interests rather than over positions is more likely.

Concluding Thoughts

Negotiations between family members in family business systems are typically more complicated and difficult than those between non-related individuals in non-family business systems. Because family relationships have existed for many years, they have deeply ingrained tendencies, some of which can facilitate a constructive negotiation and some that can hinder it. But if some family members begin to leverage the 5 principles of effective negotiation we have outlined, they will increase their chances of successful dealmaking and dispute resolution. The likelihood of success increases further if others in the family business system learn to put into practice these principles.