As a mediator, one of my primary jobs is to help people negotiate their dispute as effectively as possible, with the idea that approaching the dispute differently can help them achieve an outcome that wasn’t possible before.
I’ve been doing this work for well over a decade now, and I see the same ineffective patterns of behavior repeatedly with folks I work with in all regions of the country. Of course, most of us are not at our best when a conflict is entrenched or complicated (the kind of conflict that mediators get asked to assist), so I don’t expect people to be at their best at the mediation table. But I do find myself wishing that the ways many of us learned to “do conflict” had been a little more effective. Here are some of the common mistakes I see and suggestions for ways to alter the thinking that’s usually behind the ineffective negotiation behavior:
Thinking in absolutes. The more frustrated we get with another person, the more likely we are to see them only through the nearsighted lens of our own frustration. We subconsciously filter out evidence that would round out our view of them and instead notice the actions that are consistent with whatever we suspect is wrong with them or their thinking. So they appear to get more wrong and we get more right. Of course, the more we suggest the other person is wrong, unfair, stubborn, or the like, the more likely they are to defend themselves. And so it goes. Instead of asking ourselves, How can I convince her I’m right, a more effective question is, What pieces of the puzzle do we both bring to this problem?
Playing hardball. In a recent mediation, one party walked into the room at the start of the session and announced he wasn’t budging. Take my offer or I’m out of here now, he said, with a side note that he was prepared to sue if he had to walk out that door. Conflicts with people we are going to continue to see or work with suffer from hardball tactics like these, because such approaches leave debris that will complicate the continuing relationship. And even those negotiations with people we’re never going to see again typically suffer from hardball tactics. How many of us want to be wrestled into submission? When we’re approached this way, it almost guarantees we’ll fight back—harder. Instead of thinking, How can I force him to relent, it’s much more effective to think, How can we join forces to solve this problem?
Getting stuck in position. The gentleman in the above example was stuck in his position—give me what I want or else. Of course, if the other party is agreeable to our solution (our position), we wouldn’t be stuck in the dispute, would we? Instead of trying to figure out how to pull someone else on over to our solution, it’s far more effective to ask ourselves, What is it about my solution that isn’t working for her and what other solution might work for us both?
Demanding an apology. Demands for apology rarely work and can even escalate a dispute. We mandate apology when we feel wronged and believe the other person caused whatever problem we’re facing. Demands don’t usually work because the other person often doesn’t feel solely responsible for the problem. Or they’ll issue an apology, but it won’t be genuine because it didn’t come from a person ready to apologize. Instead of saying, You need to apologize to me, it’s much more effective to say something to the effect, Here’s the impact this had on me and I’m asking you to understand how negative an impact it was. Most people are willing acknowledge negative impact, which is a lot different than acknowledging the impact was their fault.
Backing the other person into corner. Good negotiators know that everyone needs a way out of the corner we’ve backed them into or that they’ve gotten themselves into. What does a cornered person do? They fight harder as they get pushed up against the wall. Creating an opportunity for a graceful exit from a corner allows the other person to save face and you to avoid creating a future foe. Instead of thinking, I’ve got him trapped now, instead ask, What would enable this person to want to say yes to a solution?