How do you make a relationship at work or at home stronger? Spouses, coworkers, and friends often see doing favors for one another a form of social exchange as the best way to get closer; negotiating a form of economic exchange can seem confrontational and detrimental to the relationship.
Experts and research on the topic are divided: some agree that on the surface, negotiation does appear inherent with competition two people, both vying for what they want, hoping to walk away the winner. Others point out that negotiations can end with both parties receiving benefits, something not true of favor exchange, where only one party benefits at a time. Professor Ko Kuwabara has always taken the stance that negotiating done right can lead to stronger relationships an idea he takes care to impart to his MBA students.
“All of our negotiation courses begin with the premise that every relationship is about negotiation, so if you learn proper negotiation techniques, it’s going to improve your relationships not just with your bosses, clients, and coworkers, but also with your spouse, children, neighbors, and friends,” Kuwabara says. “But a lot of people hate negotiating with close friends or significant others. They associate negotiation with something transactional because people have a win/lose mentality when it comes to negotiation.”
However, when negotiations allow or require parties to join forces to achieve win-win outcomes, they can build trust and feelings of closeness more than repeated acts of favor exchange that do not require them to work together. To test this idea, Kuwabara conducted two different experiments. In the first, participants were divided into sets of two, each representing one of two hypothetical restaurants. Each pair of participants was randomly assigned to either bilateral exchange (negotiating) or unilateral exchange (favor exchange). In each round, they earned points by dividing or exchanging meat and vegetables, creating a zero-sum game in which whatever one player gained, the other lost, or by going to a central market. Participants took turns initiating each exchange.
After the experiments, participants were asked to report their feelings toward the other participant: how close/distant, cohesive/incohesive, and team-/self-oriented their exchange relationships felt. When participants were pitted against each other over a zero-sum issue or in opposing roles as trustors and trustees, they reported more conflict, less cohesion, and valued the relationship less than when they made independent, unilateral (favor-based) acts of exchange. However, when the negotiation allowed for win-win agreements, participants reported feeling closer, more cohesive, and more like part of a team with their counterparty.
“Some people think negotiation means ‘someone getting more than you,’” Kuwabara explains. “They think it’s worse for relationships than social exchange, where you do favors for each other without explicitly expecting anything in return. But people develop a stronger sense of trust and cohesion in win/win negotiations, where you work together to grow the pie and benefit both parties, It creates a feeling of ‘we-ness’ where you really identify with the relationship.”
In other words, engaging in cooperative negotiation can strengthen relationships. In a cooperative negotiation, parties listen to each other, take turns presenting their views within a single negotiation and in initiating negotiations, and enter a negotiation with the attitude that they are tackling a common problem and working toward a solution that will benefit both of them. It’s important to generate the feeling that negotiators are assuming shared risks and finding the best way to navigate that risk together, rather than competing for limited resources.
“A lot of people shy away from negotiation with spouses, bosses, or subordinates because they assume that it implies conflict and competition,” Kuwabara says. “But if negotiation is approached in a cooperative, positive way, it can build relationships. You can do favors, and give each other gifts and Christmas cards forever, but that alone doesn’t build strong relationships. If you want to build a stronger relationship, you need to face each other and work things out as a team.”
Ko Kuwabara is assistant professor of management at Columbia Business School.
Read the Research
"Cohesion, Cooperation, and the Value of Doing Things Together: How Economic Exchange Creates Relational Bonds in Exchange Relational Bonds"