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Getting your Priorities Straight

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25-Aug-2009 | 01:41 pm
mood: pensivepensive

The contents of this article are something that I have used many, many times when talking to people who are "trying to sort things out" in terms of what they want in life, and communicating that to people who are important to them. Often they are struggling to know whether something can work, whether things are compatible with their partner, and even how to sort out the jumble of thoughts that they have about what they want their lives to be.

What follows is one tool that you can put in your toolbox which I have found works for me in several situations, especially if you are the type that likes to help organize their thoughts with lists. It is based on some excellent negotiation training that I received from The Johnson School at Cornell University. This most definitely does not apply only to polyamory - it can be applied to all sorts of situations where people are trying to sort out their priorities in life. Polyamorous people, though, have more than a usual requirement to open up communication with their partners or prospective partners, so i find it especially useful for them.

How to Do It

I am going out lay out a way for you to organise the things you feel you want in life. The first step is to know yourself. Run through the exercise I outline below for yourself, in private. This is just a first draft, though - don't sweat it too much if not a lot comes to you, or if you feel that you're not sure how to categorise things. You can change it later.

Then get the others involved in the discussion to do the same. The end result will be one document for each person.

You then get together and compare. That is the actual negotiation part which I will talk about later on in this article.

Building the Needs/Wants/Likes List

What you are going to do is to make three lists of things that are important to you. Each thing that is important to you shows up on one of these lists (and no more). Start with either piece of paper where you have made three columns, or three pieces of paper, or a stack of index cards that you will sort into three piles - whatever makes you most comfortable.

Think of something that you would like to happen, or must happen, and then categorise it in one of three ways, which I will now describe:

These are the show-stoppers. The things that are non-negotiable for you. You absolutely have to have these in place in order to stand a chance of being content or happy in life. Another phrase that describes these items is your "bottom line". Be very selective in what you put here - the more you put in this category, the more difficult the negotiations are going to be. Ask yourself "can I really do without this, in a pinch?" If the answer to this is "yes" then it's not a Need.

Wants are things that are important to you. You could do without them if you really had to, but it's going to take some persuasion to make you give them up.

These are the nice-to-haves. You could certainly do without them, but boy, it would be nice if... I'm sure you can get the idea.

When you are done you will have prioritized your wishes for where you want to be, and you can then, when your partners are complete, move on to the negotiation.

The Negotiation
Obviously you need to pick a time to do this when you will not be disturbed and everyone's concentration can be given to the task. Do this face-to-face, so that nuances can be picked up on easily. Turn off cell phones and any other potential distractions. This is important!

Compare the Needs
The first thing to do is to focus on the needs. Remember that these are each person's show-stoppers. Get each person to read out what their needs are. Let each person have their say. Then compare, and find out if anyone feels that someone else's needs can not be met. If this can not be agreed-upon, then you are finished, in more ways than one. No point going on to the Wants and Likes, or starting to negotiate. If the bottom-lines of anybody aren't possible to be met, then there is no basis for any sort of agreement, which means there is probably no basis for any sort of a relationship.

Let me give you an example: If one person has as a need that there there can be no children in the relationship, and someone else has a need that they want to father two children while in the relationship.. well, there is no middle ground, and there is no point in continuing.

Sounds pretty final, huh? Well, it's not really, necessarily. Because if it looks like this, then it's up to the individual who has that need to re-examine for themself whether it truly is a need or not. Do not be pressured into changing this - only you can know whether this is truly part of your "bottom line" to make things work or not. If it isn't a true need, then it's probably a really strong want - move it over to that column and be prepared to negotiate!

If the needs are compatible, then you can move on to the Wants.

Compare, Discuss and Negotiate the Wants
This phase is probably the most difficult of the steps in this process, because these are the things that people feel strongly about, but are willing to discuss. Each person lays out their Wants for all to hear. Mark off those where there is agreement that there will be no issue and highlight those where you have differences.

I can't tell you the details of exactly how to do this next part, because it depends so much on the individuals, the items and the group dynamic, but you need to talk, talk, talk. Take each item in turn and talk about why it is important to you. Listen to the feedback from others as they try to understand where you are coming from. Usually, when it comes to giving up a Want, there has to be some give-and-take between those involved.

Try to get to the point where each person feels that they have had a fair crack at getting their Wants met.

Present the Likes
Let each person present their likes. See whether there is a general agreement on if that Like can be accommodated without a big issue. Think of this as a sort of "and oh by the way, if it's not too inconvenient I'd like to..." type thing. You never know, by bringing them up and talking you may end up getting a lot more than you thought possible (maybe you were just afraid to ask!)

The goal here is to work together to make everyone happy. Negotiation isn't a fight with winners and losers; it's a process whereby a group works together to try to find a solution with which everybody involved can be happy and live with.

As a side benefit, this process also puts in place a "shortcut language" that everyone in the group can understand when going forward in the relationship. You can express things in terms of Needs/Wants/Likes, which instantly puts some "framing" around a talking point. When someone mentions that they have a new "need", then everybody better pay it close attention, because these are the show-stoppers, folks!

Be prepared to revise your list as you grow and your thought process and desires for your life change. Don't be afraid to review it with your partners.

For those that are single (and looking) why not do this exercise for yourself, and use it as the basis for your profiles in the online dating services that you may use. It will also give you some pretty clear framework for when you start dating.

I hope that you find this a useful way to organise your thoughts and would appreciate some feedback, especially if you have used this - tell us how it worked out for you.

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Comments {4}

John David Davison

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from: wallycaine
date: 2-Sep-2009 01:50 am (UTC)

You know, I can see how that could be really useful. It's especially important because it helps make you define exactly what it is your willing to give up, and what you have to keep. Personally, just doing a quick mental rundown, I have a feeling I put too much in the wants or even likes pile, while neglecting to define my needs. Granted, I'm not entirely sure what sort of relationship I'm looking for at this point, much less what needs to be in it, but I probably should be pickier. All in all, nicely written, and thanks for giving me something to think on.

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Ciel du Matin

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from: cieldumatin
date: 2-Sep-2009 12:46 pm (UTC)

Hi Wallycaine, glad you think this may help you. Everybody has needs, and it's important to understand them. If you demote your needs to negotiable things, then what often happens is an inner resentment can build up, often without the person knowing it, That can lead to an overall feeling of dissatisfaction with life and relationships, and can easily turn into passive aggression (along the lines of "look what I had to sacrifice to be with you, or to make this work, etc).

For that reason, I think that doing this sort of personal inventory is vital.

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from: anais_pf
date: 20-Apr-2012 02:38 am (UTC)

Just a note to let you know I saw you mention this on a recent FL thread and have now bookmarked this for future reference. This is very well thought out and I think it might prove useful to me in the future.

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Ciel du Matin

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from: cieldumatin
date: 20-Apr-2012 10:35 pm (UTC)

It's been very useful to us, and I figured that it may be to others. Sometimes the whirl of poly can be confusing and finding some sort of "method" can really help.

Thanks for the compliment! :-)

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