There’s one negotiation mistake I see people in conflict make more frequently than any other: They get so caught up in the difficult dynamics of the conflict that they stop negotiating strategically. They get emotionally hooked, rely on making demands or threats, or spend their energy trying to convince the other side to accept blame, change, see the light…you name it. They lose track of their bigger and more important goals.
My husband used to visit an athletic trainer when his bum knee hurt after basketball. Zaf would ask, “Does it hurt when you do X?” When my husband said yes, the joking reply had some good advice built in: “Then don’t do that!” The same goes for the above negotiating approaches—don’t do that! Instead, try the following four approaches to maintain a strategic state of mind:
I’ll say it one more again: Prepare. Preparing for a difficult conversation or other kind of negotiation doesn’t require hours of careful planning (though the more at stake, the more time you should prep). Sometimes just a few minutes of preparation will do the trick—as long as it’s the right kind of prep. For a dispute with a co-worker, a difficult meeting, or when negotiating a new contract, ask yourself: What do I and they most need to achieve in the coming conversation? What are my most important goals? If you’re afraid you’ll get emotionally swamped and forget your strategic goals, write them down and keep them in front of you. It never ceases to surprise me how many people walk into difficult conversations with nothing more than a vague notion of what they want to achieve for themselves. No wonder they don’t go well. I suspect the mountaineers who climb Everest know they need a better plan than “let’s just head uphill and see what happens.”
Go to the Balcony
William Ury, in his excellent book Getting Past No, suggests that when negotiations get too emotional for you, you should figuratively go to the balcony to remind yourself of the bigger picture. Easy to say, harder to do. For starters, take a break when things get frustrating—the more heightened your emotional state, the longer the break. Use that break to do something other than re-play what was happening in the negotiation, since re-playing will prolong your state of emotional flooding. Use the time to re-visit your strategic goals and identify one to two ways to get yourself back on track with them. Return to the difficult conversation when you know you can think strategically instead of reactively.
Step to Their Side
Ury also reminds readers that you need to more fully understand the reasoning and perspective of the other side before you have a good chance of negotiating mutually satisfactory solutions. The strategic negotiator asks herself, What do I need to know more about in order to understand why they think the way they do? How can I solve their problem and help myself in the process? What can I propose to which they can say yes? This last question is key. In my mediations, I see people putting a lot of energy into proposals and offers that the other person is likely to reject, leading to more frustration and entrenchment. I recently said to a party, in private, “The solution you’re proposing is being presented in a way that I think guarantees they’ll say no. I wonder what you’d do differently if you were trying to make a suggestion to which they could say yes?” It was amazing how that simple paradigm shift opened up the conversation and started the parties on the path to agreement.
Recognize Hardball Tactics
Good cop/bad cop. Lowball or highball. Stonewalling. Bogey. Nibble. Personal attack. Chicken. You can neutralize hardball negotiation tactics and shift the conversation back to more reasonable ground. But you need to know them when you see them. Recognizing a hardball tactic and calmly naming it (without accusation!) reduces the trick’s power dramatically because you let the other person know you’re onto their game and don’t want to play. If you don’t know much about hardball tactics or feel crippled by them when they occur, invest the time to educate yourself. It’ll pay off.
This article was originally published in my regular column for The Monadnock Ledger.