Negotiation Lessons from the Hit TV Show Modern Family

I’ve recently done several posts on negotiation lessons we can learn from popular T.V. shows. It’s a fun way to use real life scenarios as portrayed in our media to explore negotiation concepts (rather than a dry didactic lecture format). It’s also a great way to raise our awareness about the opportunities to learn and grow that abound in our everyday lives. We can use entertainment as a learning tool when we bring intention to the exercise.

I was watching one of my favourite comedies last night and was excited to see an episode that reinforced the principles I espouse in The Art of Feminine Negotiation™. If you’re not familiar with Modern Family, aside from the regular negotiation issues addressed, it’s a fabulous show reflecting modern dysfunctional family life.

In this episode, Phil (the happy-go-lucky son-in-law) has worked hard to negotiate a deal to buy a car for his eldest daughter for her 21st birthday. The patriarch (whose approval Phil is always seeking) prides himself on his negotiation prowess, and on his take-no-prisoners approach. He decides to tag along to show-off his skills and get a better deal than Phil had negotiated, chiding Phil for his ‘nice guy’ approach to deals.

It’s the classic illustration of the traditional competitive model that we’ve been conditioned to define as success versus the more collaborative style that I advocate (and that lies at the heart of the Art of Feminine Negotiation™).

Jay (the patriarch father-in-law) starts denigrating the deal Phil had negotiated and throwing out demands for further concessions. When the salesperson insists that Phil negotiated the best deal possible, Jay pushes back, insisting that there’s ‘wiggle room’ and trying to bully the salesperson into throwing more into the mix. In the face of insistence that the deal represents the bare bones bottom line, Jay insists he go to the manager. When the manager similarly refuses to budge, Jay insists they walk out, assuring Phil the sales rep will come running after them with further concessions … which doesn’t happen.

Jay then insists on going to another dealership, where they advise that the deal Phil had negotiated is unbeatable. Jay threatens to walk out, assuming the new dealer will buckle with a better offer. They don’t.

Jay then has to go back to the original dealership, cap in hand, trying to get the original deal back on the table. He comes back out, bragging that he got an even better deal with numerous perks through his tough negotiation strategies.

Turns out though that Jay couldn’t even get the original deal back on the table after walking away and ended up paying significantly more (which Phil only finds out from the frustrated sales rep).

There are several negotiating issues this scenario raises.

  1. Phil’s more cooperative approach, building rapport and trust, allowed the space to get the best deal possible whereas the traditional competitive approach caused a stalemate with worse outcomes.

  2. Jay’s competitive approach had him wanting to ‘win’ at all costs. He kept insisting on a ‘better deal’ and on getting ‘more’ but he didn’t have clarity about what that meant. It’s important to have clarity about the outcomes you seek in a negotiation.

  3. While it’s valuable to set high aspiration levels coming into a negotiation (as Jay did), it’s important to do the homework and prepare first to know what a reasonable reservation price (bottom line) is.

  4. Tied to reservation price, you need to know your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) before you decide to play hardball and walk away from a deal that made sense for you.

  5. Jay bullied for more without having done the work to determine where the ZOPO (zone of potential agreement) lay.

  6. Ego is usually the kiss of death in negotiations. Jay’s ego trumped his ability to negotiate effectively. When you find your ego kicking in while negotiating, turn your attention to the other party and their needs.

  7. It’s important to consider the needs of the other party in a negotiation. Jay never invoked curiosity. He failed to bring any empathy to the table. He didn’t ask a single question or make any effort to determine the needs of the dealership. This typically causes deals to fall apart or creates flawed outcomes.

  8. While walking away from a deal can sometimes be effective, it’s critical to have done your homework first, and to consider whether you’ve become too attached to a particular item and lost the perspective to effectively consider whether the deal makes sense. In this case, Jay was so attached to the need to get ‘more’ he failed to review the benefits of the actual deal on the table.

In addition to these valuable lessons, it’s interesting to note the relationship negotiation that was occurring as a subtext to the main story line. We often fail to consider our personal relationships as requiring negotiations. All of life is a negotiation and our interactions with the people in our inner circle are no exception.

Phil surrounded all his leverage in this case, blindly handing over the reins to Jay in his desire to please him. I invite you to consider where you may be surrendering your power in your personal relationships. As in this case, a little self-advocacy and awareness of the underlying negotiation at play can allow for better outcomes and better relationships.


Are you looking to up level your negotiation skills?

Please enjoy my TEDx Ocala talk – Rise of the Feminine Voice as the Key to Our Future-


Modern Family TV Show, Nagotiation lessons

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