I am fascinated by the art of negotiating.
All of the skills involved for a successful negotiation — keen listening, attention to yourself and knowledge of your essential needs and boundaries, openness to solutions that may take different forms from what you initially envision — are critical life skills. Yet negotiating is a difficult and demanding skill. It’s never a one-size-fits-all. Trying to articulate and navigate the space between yourself and others to ideally reach a win-win takes a kind of focused attention that I think is the closest I’ll get to Zen.
Negotiating is a critical part of getting outside with other people. Or at least it almost always should be.
I have lived plenty of my young, dumb Alaska life with a mindset like I’m playing house. It’s an easy trap to fall into, living in one of the most remote and wild parts of the world but still having access to creature comforts like paved roads, mega-stores and gas heating. I can easily trick myself into going outside in my big backyard and thinking it’s an extension of the safety afforded to me by modern infrastructure.
Except even in Southcentral Alaska, which is on the grid and largely accessible by car, bears get into our trash. Mountains, even those as frequently hiked as Flattop, have terrain that can make for difficult and technical rescues when people get in trouble. There are these red warning lights all around me, telling me this place may have lots of humans living here but it’s still Alaska. It’s still wild out here.
So being properly prepared for time spent outdoors is part of our responsibility. It’s something I’m always learning and needing to remind myself about, and over time I’ve gotten a lot better at it.
No, I don’t wear knee pads to go on a walk. I don’t carry bear spray in the Fred Meyer parking lot. But I take the smaller, sensible precautions of letting someone know where I’m going and what time range I expect to be back; I use my headphones judiciously (which I realize is controversial in and of itself — and a separate column); I carry plenty of water and snacks depending on where I’m heading and how long I plan to be out.
What does all of this have to do with negotiation?
One of the most critical things about being outdoors in Alaska is knowing my limits, including awareness of when I’m pushing myself and how far I can go. This includes both physical and emotional limits.
When I head outside with someone else, even if it’s just for a run, their threshold will be different than mine. This difference could have tiny or great consequences, depending on the situation. And — yes — that difference usually needs to be negotiated.
I’m not saying the back-and-forth is always this big ordeal; I think most times it isn’t. But when I think of what has prevented me from spending time outdoors with others in the past, often it comes to what I feel is a skill, fitness or even just an approach mismatch. A lot of the time it’s just about my own insecurity — something I still have, but over time I’ve become much more confident and comfortable in my own skin. Overcoming that shyness about getting outside with others is about having the ability to say out loud, “here is how I would prefer to be outside, and here is my limit.”
In relatively low-risk situations, like a run or a hike, figuring this out is low stakes (although as I said, that can change quickly given how crazy wild this place is). It’s as easy as me being up front about the fact that I am a slow runner and hiker and a friend saying, OK, I’ll run with you for the first 3 miles and then I’m going to pick up the pace, because that’s what I enjoy.
But in higher-stakes situations — including backpacking, anything out on the water and especially backcountry skiing — mapping out those skills and limits becomes much more important. This is in the spirit of everyone enjoying themselves, but also to make sure the group knows itself and its skill-set well and is prepared to adapt in the case of a change in plans or an emergency.
To get to this shared understanding, it takes negotiating. It takes each person knowing and being able to articulate themselves well, and knowing where they can bend and where they have firm limits. It takes creativity, honesty and care.
In a place like Alaska, which often pushes me to my limits, I know more about myself than I would if I lived someplace else. This helps me to get outside in ways I’m comfortable with, to know when and where I need to push myself and how far, and to define, together, how I get outside with other people.
Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.