Being right is not important, but it can be dangerous

(This is a repost from Filip’s original blog)

Negotiation is often discussed in the context of business transactions. And in that context the approach that most of us follow intuitively centers around trying to win by getting the biggest chunk of (what we perceive to be) the available value. (This may be a good time to ready my previous blog on: Why we don’t know what we want.)

But most of our negotiations are not large monetary transactions with similarly groomed executives in high-rise boardrooms. They are simply interactions with others. These interactions may have little to do with money, and everything to do with something much more important to us; being right! Actually, simply being right is not enough – we want the other party to concede that we are right and that they are wrong.

This is a predictable pattern of behaviour. Negotiators love predictability because it gives us greater control of the negotiation. Specifically, if we realize that it is hugely important for the other party to feel that they are right, then we may simply let them be right.

E.g., if I propose a solution to something, e.g. gun control in a previous blog, then I’m not married to the specific recommendation. What I do care about is an outcome that works for everyone, regardless of who came up with that outcome. So if the other party I negotiate with doesn’t like my idea then I simply invite them to help me out: “If you didn’t like my proposal, then how do you recommend we improve it so that it does a better job of catering to all stakeholders’ needs?”

As long as the solution the other party comes up with is better for all, then the only drawback of this approach is that I don’t get credit for the outcome. Unfortunately, this is one major reason why “the skilled negotiator” is such a rare breed – because few of us are prepared to give up credit and recognition! (As described in my upcoming book, having a sensitive ego and being a skilled negotiator are not compatible.) 

Ok, so letting the other party believe that they are right can be beneficial. But can it ever be dangerous? Unfortunately, yes.

If parties don’t look for outcomes that work for all, but rather pursue self-serving outcomes at the expense of others, then suddenly believing that one is right becomes a very dangerous ingredient. Some of the worst atrocities in history have occurred as a direct result of one or more parties justifying their (often greedy, unethical, illegal or inhumane) actions with self-serving beliefs such as “We are the good guys”, “We are right”, or “God is on our side”. In these circumstances, logic and rational thinking effectively get switched off, and we need different tools to resolve the situation than those covered today.

Assume agreement

(This is a repost from Filip’s original blog)

“What? Alright Filip… I buy the other stuff you posted here, but assume agreement…? Isn’t that dangerous? What if we at the end of the negotiation believe we have agreement and the other party believes they agreed to something completely different? Couldn’t that spell disaster?”

Yes. Your concerns are legitimate. I agree. (And in a future blog I’ll explain why negotiators frame their questions differently. Another time!) 

At the end of the negotiation we certainly wish to ensure that all parties involved leave with the same understanding of what we have agreed to.

But until we reach this point in the negotiation we are dramatically more likely to make the opposite mistake; to assume disagreement when there is none. This assumption has the unfortunate property of triggering a destructive negotiation pattern that we are all guilty of.

Once we assume that our opinions are incompatible we become preoccupied with supporting our position in order to win. Insights from psychology explain that we lose objectivity at this point, and effectively try to manufacture or manipulate available evidence to support the view we already have. In the process we pollute the interaction with assumptions, accusations, judgements and anything else that we can find to make us feel like winners and make the other side look like losers.

So what can we do instead? Well, instead if assuming disagreement, negotiators assume misunderstanding. Rather than assuming that our opinions are incompatible, we assume that we simply haven’t yet understood out how they are compatible. Additionally, we fight the (delicious) temptation to blame the other party for not understanding us. Rather we assume that we don’t understand each other. The process we chose to follow is one of letting all parties clarify their opinion, and confirm that they understand the opinion of others.

It helps create a healthy mindset for negotiation to assume… no…. to believe that this process can always lead to agreement.

Negotiating gun control

(This is a repost from Filip’s original blog)

In the options toolbox section of the book I share a number of approaches that can each unlock agreement for groups of structurally similar negotiations. We have already shared the path of least risk in relation to the climate change debate. Today we’ll look at another tool; chunking.

As humans we are lazy creatures by nature. We are designed to use mental shortcuts, rules of thumb, and simplifications wherever possible. This allows us to act swiftly in situations of danger. These shortcuts also free up our minds to do other things. But there is one big drawback – we are very prone to come up with oversimplified answers and solutions to complex problems. Without thinking about it, we launch into making a binary decision of “yes/no”, “for/against”, “right/wrong” or “agree/disagree”.

But what happens when we deal with something truly complex, such as the issue of gun control? We predictably end up with two polarized camps that each takes firm, inflexible and incompatible positions on the issue. On the issue of gun control, parties typically bring up completely different arguments. Yet, they keep rushing to a conclusion on one overall decision: e.g. “more or fewer guns” or “more or less restrictive gun policy”. You get the picture.

So what can we do instead? We chunk.

I recall a saying: “Even if we don’t know how to make an angel statue out of granite, we can still start by removing the parts that are obviously not part of the statue”.

Chunking is very similar to this. Let’s pick the sub-issues of gun control that we can obviously and trivially agree on. We may not resolve the entire issue, but we can make progress. Just agreeing on one sub-issue leaves parties better off than the previous stalemate. In fact, just agreeing to look for trivial areas of agreement leaves parties better off, because they are in agreement!

After the recent tragedy in Newton, Connecticut, perhaps the first trivial issue parties can agree on to get the process started is: “Without polluting our discussion with any other issues at this point, can we at least agree that none of us would like to be killed by a gun…?”

And to continue the process of chipping away on the problem, parties may wish to pick the additional chunks that can easily be agreed on. Perhaps we can agree that:

  • Criminals convicted of armed robbery should not be allowed to carry guns, ever.
  • People with specific diagnosed personality or behaviour disorders should not be allowed to carry guns.
  • Gun ownership requires that the gun owner can guarantee that no one else will get access to the gun.

And so on. It is then with an eerie sense of déjà vu that I read yesterday’s issue of The Washington Post:

“A working group led by Vice President Biden is seriously considering measures backed by key law enforcement leaders that would require universal background checks for firearm buyers, track the movement and sale of weapons through a national database, strengthen mental health checks, and stiffen penalties for carrying guns near schools or giving them to minors”