Negotiator interrupted

“Hey… I just noticed something. Every time we interrupt you, you stop talking. That seems like a pretty smart thing to do. Is there an intentional strategy behind it?”

The business owner who had asked me for advice on negotiating the sale of his company was on the right track with his question. Throughout the meeting the owner and his two executives kept fighting for airtime. Not in a rude or aggressive manner. Rather they were simply keen to share their ideas and opinions, and in the process kept cutting each other off.

But whenever this happened while I was ta….. …… …… ……. ……… …… ….. …….. ……… ………. ……. ….. …….. …… …….. ……. …… ……… ………. ……….. ……….. ………. …….. ………. ……… ……. ……….. ………….. ….…. ……………. …………. ………… ……..… . ………….. ……….. …………….lking, I would stop mid-sentence. Why?

Well, when someone interrupts you they have already made it abundantly clear that their present need is to talk, not listen. So there is little point in engaging in a competition over airtime. What do you get if you win such a competition? Their undivided attention? Unlikely!

So when negotiators get interrupted, they stop talking and instead start listening. Whether your boss is spending 90 minutes chewing you out, or your partner is telling you why everything is your fault, or a customer is telling you all the reasons your company is crap, you can also choose to adopt our approach and simply listen.

This has several additional benefits for the negotiation process, and you can read further in our book.

The bad news is that this approach will strike most readers as quite odd… which tells me that this is not what people normally do. Some of the main reasons we don’t are:

  • We don’t understand how influence works. Specifically we assume that we influence by talking. However, negotiators know we influence much more by asking questions and listening.
  • We think we know where the other party is going, or we think they are wrong. Either way we believe they’re wasting our time by continuing talking!  However, negotiators know that talking is a need, and depriving the other party of this need is likely to cause resentment, resistance and other forms of pollution.
  • We have things to say of our own, and we want to share them now before we forget. However, negotiators don’t think either/or, but rather both/and. How can both the other party and we get a chance to talk? How about they start, we capture our thoughts on paper, and then we talk after the other party has finished?

In negotiation circles listening is commonly referred to as the cheapest concession you can give. So give generously!

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.

Dealing with emotional people

“…and you’re a !&#$!@ and this lecture is a *#@!$ waste of time!”

The words coming out of this participant’s mouth are foul offensive to say the least. But yet all participants in the crisis negotiation seminar are laughing. In fact, lying there on the floor in front of everyone, even the student shouting these profanities could barely contain a big and welcoming smile.

I had told the student to tell me off to the best of his ability. And I told him to do so repeatedly while we changed his posture, our seating arrangement, and other aspects of the situation. As it turned out, lying there on his back made it quite difficult to keep the fight going. In contrast it was much easier for him to act aggressive two minutes earlier when we were face to face and two inches apart.

We ran this exercise in response to a participant asking the question: “How do you deal with emotional people?” When a person is in an emotional state, perhaps as a result of experiencing a crisis, he or she will have very little available attention for you or what you want. This typically makes it much harder for you to have the type of constructive dialogue that you probably prefer. Thus the key to dealing with an emotional person (or more accurately, a person who is in an emotional state) is to first influence that person to adopt a more rational frame of mind.

Many of the most powerful tools for achieving this are derived from crisis negotiation, and you will find several of these in our book, Negotiation Evolved.

Or you can keep doing what you do know. If you belong to the majority, then there is a pretty good chance that your favourite tool at present is to tell people to change their emotions: “Stop being so emotional”, “don’t be sad”, “watch your temper!” or “CALM DOWN!!”

…and you must really, really love this technique, because you keep at it even though there is no chance in hell that it will work 😉

“Talk is cheap!”

As the 120kg mountain of muscle wobbles past me at the gym I read the large letter text on his t-shirt: “Talk is cheap!”

For a second I ponder what I – as a negotiator – think about that. Is talk cheap? Well… yes and no. Talking can be very expensive, because while we talk we aren’t listening to the other party, and we may thus miss out on important cues for how to influence that person. This is one reason why silence coupled with listening skills is often touted as the cheapest concession you can make in negotiation.

On the other hand, having a conversation can be much cheaper than an exchange of force – as well as much more effective in getting parties what they want. So the expression “Talk is cheap”, like all insights in negotiation, is true in some circumstances. Our job as situational negotiators is to know when a particular insight is the most important insight.

But I doubt this is the message the muscle man at the gym had in mind when designing his own t-shirt. And as I looked around the gym I noticed more t-shirts with similar messages, such as: “Only the strong will survive”. It seemed important for these individuals to communicate to the world that muscle is the primary tool for getting what you want.

And if we substitute the more general word “power” for “muscles” then we’ll find that many negotiators think in exactly the same way. So what does power (or muscles) allow you to do? It allows you to dictate outcomes, and it allows you to force the other party to concede. That is very tempting, and often the main motivation for building power (or muscles).

But… and there are some big but(t)s (especially if you work those glutes… ahem…). One is that use of power introduces a whole slew of prohibitive risks. We cover these extensively in the book. Another drawback is that negotiating using power – quite ironically – introduces the potential outcome of submission.

Let’s clarify this using our gym example. If the only source of power is “muscles” or “strength”, then the strongest party in every negotiation will win and the weakest party will lose.

Now ponder this – how many people are the strongest person in the world? Oh, just the one? Ooopps… Does that mean everyone else who bases his or her negotiation strategy on power (or muscles) alone has to get used to the idea of “submission”? Mm-hm…