Ask… then ask again!

The real world is very complex, and yet physicists can reduce complex interactions between objects into simple diagrams and formulas. Similarly, human interaction is tremendously complex – and in this domain it is the negotiator who will reduce what goes on into almost trivial simplicity. But don’t be fooled; these insights are still very powerful!

Let me illustrate. In the last few weeks I have had three very similar conversations. And while these have involved more complexity than I will capture here, I can actually summarise the key parts of each dialogue in just a few sentences.

See if you can spot the pattern (which I’ve hopefully made abundantly obvious!)

Dialogue 1:
Obstacle: “You can’t return the product for cash. You can only exchange it.”
Negotiator: “Really?”
Obstacle: “Yes.”
Negotiator: “Really?”
Obstacle: “Ok, ok, you can get your money back.”

Dialogue 2:
Obstacle: “We will will allocate just over half the funds you expected.”
Negotiator: “Really?”
Obstacle: “Yes.”
Negotiator: “Really?”
Obstacle: “Ok, you’ll get all the funds you expected.”

Dialogue 3:
Obstacle: “I’m sorry, but the price for our services is now three times higher than what you paid last year.”
Negotiator: “Really?”
Obstacle: “Yes.”
Negotiator: “Really?”
Obstacle: “Yes.”
Negotiator: “Really?”
Obstacle: “Ok, you can continue paying what you paid last year.”

I have of course cut out all the irrelevant noise. What is left is the following – a challenge. Not in a confrontational way. Not a counter proposal. Not even articulated as a specific question. Merely an indication that I’m not quite ready to accept what the other party is proposing. And in each of the scenarios this approach gave me exactly what I wanted.

There is a common saying in negotiations circles that goes like this: “if you don’t ask the answer is always no”. Based on these three mini-dialogues I would like to add: “…and if the answer is no – ask again!”

Beware of the status negotiation

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

In my upcoming book I discuss the idea that every negotiation (and interaction!) we have is actually made up of multiple parallel negotiations.

When I ask you ”What was that last negotiation about?”, the answer you give me will probably be what we call the formal topic of the negotiation. Now, if this were the only negotiation we needed to pay attention to then life would be very easy.

But human interaction is much more complex than that. Our formal topic will be polluted by a range of covert negotiations (or competitions!) about status, perceptions, intentions, understanding, trust, rapport, fairness, values, beliefs, and so on.

So let’s today look at one of these; the status negotiation. We all want status and recognition. But we make two flawed assumptions that often make the status negotiation impossible to resolve. One assumption is that we should have most status. The other is that we assume there is only one source of status.

The pattern can look something like this:

  • Person A: “I have 20 years experience in this area, so I know what I’m talking about.” (i.e.”I’m right because of my status!” )
  • Person B: “Well I have education, so I understand this in much more detail than a simple practitioner.”
  • Person C: “I have the most senior title, so the organisation has decided that my view is most important.”
  • Person D: “Yes, but I’m much older than all of you, and have life experience that you can’t begin understand.”
  • Person E: “You are all wrong. I’m clearly the most intelligent person in the room, so my view is obviously the most important.”
  • Persons A, B, C, D in unison: “No, I’m the most intelligent person in the room!”

Do our negotiations really look like this? YES… they do! But not on the surface. All of this goes on behind the scenes. Still, the results are readily visible, and with focused attention we can pick up on the signals in time.

Each party that does not feel that their status is acknowledged will resent the others. Left unresolved, this unmet need will predictably pollute the rest of the negotiation or interaction. It is not uncommon for a failed status negotiation to cause an otherwise successful negotiation to derail.

So what can we do instead? How about we deal with those flawed assumptions! Let’s first appreciate that there are countless sources of status. The more sources we have, the more flexibility we have to let the other party also get their status needs met. We need to take responsibility for this. Because if we put all our eggs in one basket and only rely on a single source of status (e.g. our title or rank) then our ego will do everything it can to protect that source of status. And we already know that having a sensitive ego is incompatible with being a skilled influencer or negotiator.

Let’s also acknowledge that the goal is not to feel appreciated at the expense of the other party. Rather the goal is to feel sufficiently appreciated. There is no competition here, so stop competing!

Let’s try this out:

“So you (Person B) have a PhD? Fantastic! I’m sure that your education together with my (Person A) experience in this area will enable us to arrive at even better outcomes than those we could each have achieved individually!”

Now wasn’t that the easiest thing in the world…?

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”