Getting Out of the “Perfect Picture” Trap in Disagreements/Negotiations

Perfect Picture NegotiationA negotiation will fail if one or both participants insist on their “Perfect Picture” of the solution. This forms a trap or a stalemate in the negotiation and a failure to resolve a disagreement. However, there is a way to avoid this trap. Inside each “perfect picture” really are various factors that have become “musts” in the person’s head that represent what they need. Actually, when you take a closer look, not all “musts” or wants are equal. Some are truly what we feel we must have to feel safe, or happy or secure. Others come from “preferences” which do not really have the same weight as the “must have” items. However, in negotiations with a mate or in a business situation we often “lump” these items together as if the whole package needs to be what we “must have” and prefer.


Let’s take the negotiation to buy a house. One of the partners may “need” to have a house in a certain neighborhood. And it “must” be a house and not a condo. Or it “must” be in a certain school district for that person to have their “picture” met. The other partner may look at the issue from a financial focus, such as being below a certain price, or taking out a loan below a certain percentage. Each person views their focus as superior to the other, creating a “stalemate”. Each person will not relax their position for fear that giving in on one point will somehow result in “losing ground” on other unstated issues that may also be important.

This doesn’t need to be the case. When each person is able to differentiate between “must haves” and “preferences” it creates space for solutions in which both people or sides can find agreement. When people stop looking at it as a “win/lose” situation there is less pressure in each person being seen as “one down” from the other. And when people come together to find a solution it becomes more clear what is most important to each participant regarding the issue.

The Fishbowl Exercise

I have called this negotiation skill “The Fishbowl Exercise”. I will explain why as we discuss how to do this exercise.

Each person writes down a list of no more than 4 “must haves” about the issue at hand. And no more than 2 concerns about the issue. Here is where the name of the exercise comes in to play in a metaphorical sense. Each participant would put the concerns and must have items on separate pieces of paper and would put them in the fishbowl to combine them. This way they become a team to identify all possible solutions that cover these items as much as possible. And each can clearly see all of the possibilities involved. The task at hand then is to find those solutions that best answer as many must haves and preferences as possible. It is no longer an issue of “win/lose”, but rather is a united effort to find the best solution. “Win/lose” approaches rarely work because someone is going to be on the “losing” end one way or another.

Example of using the Fishbowl Exercise in a housing negotiation:

Let’s take Evelyn and Max who are discussing the issue of whether or not to buy a house. They are thinking of buying “one day” but Evelyn wants it sooner than later. For Max it is more about committing to the money being spent.

So they each make their lists of up to 4 preferences and 2 concerns about this subject.

On Evelyn’s preference list she has:

  1. House as opposed to a condo.
  2. In the “Marble” school district which has a great reputation for when they have kids.
  3. Wants to buy in the Richmond neighborhood that comes under the Marble school district.
  4. The house needs to have a large yard for future kids to play, or for entertaining friends.

Max’s preferences look like this:

  1. Spend less than $450,000.
  2. Save enough money first to lessen the mortgage
  3. Purchase it on their own without help from parents
  4. Wait awhile until the prices go down in the market

Evelyn’s Concerns list is:

  1. She doesn’t want to wait longer in case the housing market does not come down in price
  2. She doesn’t want to raise kids in a condo where they can’t play in the yard.

Max’s Concerns list is:

  1. Doesn’t want to feel money pressures every month
  2. Doesn’t want to spend more money just to be in a certain neighborhood

After they discuss their findings they agree:

  1. Evelyn would rather buy sooner than have to live in a particular neighborhood.
  2. Evelyn would consider a town home if they could not find an affordable house.
  3. Max is willing to look for a house now if it is under the $450,000.
  4. Evelyn is willing to do the mortgage without the help of parents if the price limit can be met.

You can see that in their negitation their preferences had their own hierarchy. For example, Evelyn wanted a house sooner than later and less than a special neighborhood. And Max is willing to look for a house rather than a condo if the price is right.

What happens if one person gets more of what they wanted than the other?

This is inevitable at times. However, the process doesn’t stop here. The person who met more of what they wanted in the final agreement needs to somehow “give back” to the other person. For example, in this house negotiation, perhaps to be in a certain neighborhood and school district the couple will decide on a smaller house than what one desired in his or her “perfect picture”. Or it is a condo that is more affordable, but the rest of the items were met, and it is financially within the preference or “must have” amount of the other participant.

Some negotiations may occur more frequently than buying a house. Inequities can be resolved using a trading technique. For example, if one person got more of what they wanted in a choice of vacation, then the person who got less of their “wants” has more say in the next vacation.

The same technique can be used for choosing “date night”. This is much easier because hopefully a couple is doing “date night” no less than every two weeks in order to “water the garden” and nourish the relationship. If one person got their choice for the date night and it could not include the choice of the other person, then the next date night is planned by the other person in terms of what they want to do.

Last Thoughts:

We frequently find ourselves in a negotiation over mundane matters, like what to have for dinner. A successful negotiation is about both people finding that their needs matter to the other person. In business it is about respect as well, and that they can build a relationship regarding business matters in the future.

I very much believe in teaching kids to negotiate with their parents. Kids need to have a voice at times, however not in every subject. For example, it is not likely to be their choice whether they go to the dentist or not. Although parents have the final “say”, the child needs to feel heard and that their needs are important. Children need to practice and to build their negotiation skills or success in their future endeavors. Parents can be great teachers for them. For example, parents will teach their kids about marriage, whether they know it or not. Healthy marriages are going to frequently feature negotiations with positive results.

Action Items:

  1. Have you ever experienced a successful negotiation with a partner or in business? How did you do this?
  2. What would be the most challenging part of this exercise and concept for you? Why?
  3. Can you see working towards a “win/win” approach, especially in a romantic relationship?
  4. Are you open to teaching negotiation skills like this to your kids? If not, why not?

Next Blog: The Bullseye Exercise: Make Decisions Based Upon the Person’s Value to You.

About Susan Saint-Welch

Susan Saint-Welch LMFT has counseled couples and individuals for many years on issues such as dating, marriage, family drama, coping with difficult times, improving self-image and living the life you love. She provides psychotherapy for clients in California and Dating, Couples and Life Coaching for clients outside California through secure video conferencing. She has published numerous articles regarding these issues on her website, on and on

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