Stop talking to improve communication

Sometimes we talk too much and communicate too little. This is particularly the case in heated exchanges that are fuelled by high emotions, risks, stakes or high levels of uncertainty. Parties become so focused on telling their story that they forget that the purpose of communication is to improve understanding.

So next time you find yourself in a heated dispute with a close friend, family member, loved, business partner or your enemy – see if you can try the following, somewhat different, but very powerful technique:

  1. Sit next to each other, side-by-side.
  2. Open a new document in the word processor on your computer or tablet.
  3. Then let the other person write everything they want to say.
  4. Then… and only then do you go through and make your comments… in writing.
  5. Rinse and repeat steps 3 and 4 until you find agreement.

I used this approach in a very difficult and heated conversation in the last week. After just two cycles both parties agreed and the emotions completely dissipated? How is this possible?

Here’s are a few explanations:

  • First of all, how often do we – in arguments – get to finish everything we want to say before interrupted? Rarely? Never? Much of the escalation in conflict is directly related to the frustration of not feeling understood. So letting the other party finish talking will go a long way to preventing conflict.
  • Do our words ever come out wrong and we just wish we could stop them mid-air? But by that time it is already too late and we unintentionally created or fuelled the conflict further? Letting the each party carefully choose his or her words on the computer means we remove this unnecessary pollution before it can cause any damage.
  • And who can relate to the urge to interrupt and correct the other party when they say something you disagree with? Our urgency is driven by our fear that a failure to argue now might signal agreement! By instead leaving the words there on the screen in front of you means you have all the time in the world to go back to, and counter each point – if you so desire.
  • And how hard is it to clarify misunderstandings in the heat of battle? “What I meant to say was…” It’s difficult! But on the screen you just have to write “Aha, I see you understood this as X. What I really meant was Y!”
  • And in the argument our main focus is the point(s) of disagreement, so 100% of our focus is on disagreement. What we fail to acknowledge is that we actually do agree on a lot! By instead highlighting all the words in the document that are in agreement we realise just how much agreement there is, and just how small the disagreement is in contrast.
  • Similarly in arguments we often repeat ourselves because we don’t feel understood. On the document we can simplify the interaction by agreeing to delete duplicates. Nothing will be ignored, as everything will be commented on.
  • And of course, in very heated interactions we occasionally 🙂 say things that we know are not true, e.g. exaggerations like “You always do this!”. Again, on the screen it is easy to comment “Hmm… would you agree that sometimes be more fair and accurate than always
  • Finally, when the other person tells you the words, then he or she is the problem. But when you sit side-by-side, looking at the screen together you are collaborators working on a problem; to clean up the words on screen and find agreement. It is now longer “you vs. me” but rather “us vs. the limitations of communication”.

Using this process we successfully removed all pollution, reframed all unconstructive language to be constructive, clarified all assumptions/emotions/perceptions, removed all lies/exaggerations, marked all areas of agreement, removed repetition, and in the end there was simply nothing left to disagree on.

Which is consistent with the negotiation premise that over 90% of all disagreement is merely caused by a lack of understanding due to inadequate communication.

Afterwards I asked the other party how they felt about this process. They smiled, nodded and said: “I liked it! And I really felt that I could be more honest this way.”

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5 problems with your opening offer

Occasionally participants ask me about opening offers. Regardless of what the offer is about, we typically make a few mistakes in how we think about opening offers:

  1. Three of the problems are right there in the heading. Let’s start with the first one – opening offer. The language used signals that this is your first offer, but that you expect to give more. Of course you can’t admit this to the other party, because then they will hold out for your next, more favourable (from their perspective) offer.
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    So what do you do? You want to maximise your chances of them accepting this first offer so you keep the charade going for a bit. You look the counterparty straight in the eye, and tell him or her that this is the best you can do. In other words, you start the negotiation with a lie!
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    And if you lie once, then everything you say is questionable. Bye-bye trust.
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  2. Many people will give an offer that involves price or other numbers. Sure, at some point we may need to discuss numbers. But once numbers are on the table negotiations predictably degenerate into a bargaining game with little to no value creation potential. Yes, the game can be turned around. But that will require a more skilful negotiator, and that skilled negotiator is unlikely to have started with a number in the first place.
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    So what do we discuss if we don’t discuss numbers? We discuss how to arrive at those numbers. This conversation has greater scope for finding agreement, creating value, and for persuading parties.
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  3. One common reason for opening with a number is to take advantage of anchoring. When we don’t have a reference point as to what is a fair or correct number (e.g. the price for a new or unique product), we are disproportionally influenced by (anchored to) the first number we hear. So negotiators have an incentive to open with aggressive opening offers. While we don’t necessarily accept the anchor we hear as fair, it does work like a strong gravity field and influences our expectations of where the negotiation will end up.
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    But… While anchoring is very effective for claiming value from completely unskilled negotiators, it is such a common tactic that even average negotiators are familiar with it. And they will resent you for trying to manipulate them.
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  4. By the way, why are we calling it an opening offer? Why are we offering anything? Discussing offers signal a fundamental misunderstanding of negotiation. It’s not about give and take. We’re in the business of finding ways to get all parties what they want. Assuming that parties have to give, concede or offer things leads parties into a zero-sum bargaining process where little or no value is created.
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    Why not use “option”, “suggestion” or “idea” instead of “offer”. Indeed, why not!
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  5. And why open with an offer. How can you possibly expect to come up with the perfect offer straight out of the box? The offer (or option, suggestion, idea or solution) is supposed to satisfy parties needs, thus we first have to discover what those needs are! And to do so effectively typically relies on first having negotiated a process and pattern of communication that parties agree to follow. And the success of achieving that is in turn strongly influenced by relational aspects such as rapport and trust among parties.
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    In other words, there are many, many things negotiators do before putting an offer (or option, suggestion…) on the table.