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!”

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!

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 😉

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.