Find a Third Alternative – Step One


If you read yesterday’s post, you know how to recognize a Third Alternative: it ends a disagreement with both of you happy.
Even Stephen Covey, who wrote about Third Alternatives in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, lost track of this first step when he also called this Win-Win negotiating. Almost everyone since has used this same name, and the name leads sales people, business leaders, and relationship therapists to completely miss the essential first step.
Finding Third Alternatives is not negotiating at all.
Step One: Jump the net!
You and your mate are on the same team. (For that matter, so are you and your customer, you and your subordinate, or you and your joint venture partner.) As long as you are on opposite sides of the net, there are only two alternatives. You may defend yours creatively, hoping to make your husband or wife see the light and agree with you, but you will not find a Third Alternative.
Jump the net. Tell your mate, “I want you to have what you want. I just cannot give it to you in this particular form. Let’s come up with some specs for a Third Alternative.”
Before we jumped the net on the laundry room disagreement, here are some of the things I said to my husband about putting it in the basement of the house we were building:

  • “If it’s in the basement, it will have a window and some natural sunlight.” This was not a must-have for me, but I was pretty sure he would think it a great benefit of my getting my way on this one.
  • “If the washer overflows, the water will go into the sump hole, not the family room.” Neither of us had ever seen a washer overflow except on TV comedies, but what the heck, it might convince him.
  • “We would not need to walk as far with the laundry basket.” Yep, I was really reaching now.

I have heard some women even put some spin on the ball with something like, “How often do you think I am going to feel in the mood after lugging the laundry in there and washing in the dark?”
You might win a battle this way, but in the end you’ll destroy your relationship with the most important person in your life.
When you jump the net, you give up your first alternative and stop offering any reasons to select it. You are going to get something you like just as much, so let it go. You get a bonus with a Third Alternative, too. You get a happy spouse who feels like a winner, too.
This is the step way too many people skip, and they seldom find themselves happy with the outcome. They are still negotiating, dividing the pie in two based on the final score in their little tennis match. You are on your way to making a bigger, tastier pie with your beloved mate, who is now standing right beside you.
Tomorrow, I will give you the recipe.

About the author

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.


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  • Hello Patty! First of all thank you so much for this blog. I have been reading it for the past couple of days, starting from the beginning (I don’t know if you have stats, but if you see a zillion hits from San Diego that’s me!).
    I’m writing to ask your help for finding a third alternative in my situation. I am in a relationship with an inmate. Our relationship is pretty rocky right now but we are committed to each other and I know it will get better (again, SO grateful for your blog). We are so rocky that he has decided to only call me twice a day (20-minute phone calls, so 40 minutes a day) in order to not allow ample time for an argument to start. I see where he’s coming from but I feel like it’s pushing me away and making me feel distant from him–the mail room hasn’t been sending me his letters, so all I have with him is phone time because he is in another state and I can’t visit every week like I wish I could.
    So we need a third alternative. I am sitting here wondering how can there possibly be a third alternative where we get what we want. I just brought up the third alternative last night–I told him, “I want you to have what you want, I really dearly want that for you. I also want our relationship to be okay, and that means I want what I want too–I want us BOTH to have what we want, so I would like us to come up with another solution.” I could sense the calming effect that had on him and he agreed we need another solution. But, how is there another solution that gives us BOTH what we want? I would be okay with 3 calls a day (an hour) for now, while we work on repairs, but what if that’s not what he wants? I don’t want him to settle, I want him to be “delighted” (as delighted as one can be in this situation). I do truly want him to have what he wants, I always do.
    It’s okay to publish this comment, in case maybe someone else happens to read it some day and it helps them in some way.

  • Hi, Teresa, and thank you for allowing me to share your question with others. Alternative 1, which would make him happy, is he calls you twice a day for 20 minutes. Alternative 2, which you prefer, is he calls you 3 times a day for 20 minutes.
    Alternative 3 might not involve talking on the phone at all. Or it might involve talking on the phone but in a different way, for a different length of time, or on a different schedule.
    What you need are the specs for your solution, both what you want and what you want to avoid that might come with your partner getting what he or she wants. So far, we know they include:
    – Feeling closer, despite your physical separation
    – Avoiding arguments
    If you want more time to reduce your boredom, increase your chances of hearing positive things about yourself, get to know him better, feel more known yourself, or feel more secure, put them on the list. Then add his.
    And then, throw aside the idea of phone calls and ask how you could get these. Maybe you need a PO box to receive his letters. Maybe you need to find a way to spend more time together. Maybe you need some problem-free days or call times. Maybe you need a code word to change the subject immediately. Maybe you need to figure out how to live nearer each other. Maybe you need more hobbies, so he can get to know you through photos of you enjoying yourself instead of just words.
    I don’t know if you have run across it yet, but one of my disagreements with my first husband was about running local errands. We had intentionally found a home close to his office, so he could get home easily if his chronic illness acted up. I had long hours and a long commute, so I was sure I wanted him to run the local errands. He objected. I ran them during time we might otherwise have spent together.
    After he was dead, I felt I had to reduce the distance between my work and our son’s school. Not wanting to take our son away from friends right after losing his father, I moved my work. I found myself in a new location where I could have had lunch on weekdays with my husband and walked together in the park between our offices. I could have run those errands on my drive home and still had an extra two hours a day with him and our son. But I had for so long accepted the commute as a given and as a reason to feel slighted by his refusal to run those errands.
    Don’t try to resolve the time on phone problem. Solve the avoid arguments / feel closer problem. And take nothing about your current separation for granted.

By Patty Newbold

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.

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