Eyes OFF the prize

“What? Now you’re just confusing us. First you say eyes on the prize, now eyes OFF the prize. Which one is it?!” 

First of all, I wish to apologize for the confusion. It was completely intentional 🙂

Here is what is going on. In negotiation there are very few insights that are always right. Rather, as we discuss in the book, we need a situational approach that acknowledges that the situation and context determines which negotiation insights will be most relevant at any particular point in your current negotiation.

So the previous blog entry highlighted how keeping a relentless focus on the prize can help parties move negotiations along despite feelings of regret, resentment, hurt, blame or desire for revenge.

But sometimes the other party’s relentless focus on their prize is the problem. Specifically when their prize (or “desired outcome”) is for you to lose the negotiation.

Consider the playful tug of war over a tennis ball with your dog. The more force you put into getting your prize, the more force your dog will put in. Does your dog want the tennis ball? Yes. But perhaps your dog specifically wants the tennis ball because you want it, or because it enjoys the game. It is simple, primitive and innate competitive behaviour. So what happens when you act uninterested and walk away? That’s right, sometimes your dog will walk up to you and leave the ball at your feet! The ball is now yours… until you want it… and now the competition resumes!

And what happens if you in the middle of the tug of war let go of the ball and instead pet your dog and rub it behind the ears and on the tummy. Your dog’s internal dialogue instantly changes from “Must have ball!” to “What ball?” Its eyes are off the prize, and again the ball is yours – this time without the dog knowing (or caring about) what happened.

So how is this relevant for negotiation? Well, in circumstances when the other party is ultra-competitive and specifically uses the success criteria that you have to lose, we may actually wish to avoid negotiating head-on. We specifically do not want their eyes on the prize.

Imagine going to a gym and trying to negotiate to get 2-3 weeks free trial training instead of the regular 1-3 day pass. Any attempt to increase the number of free days is very likely to be met with resistance.

But what if you change the interaction? What if you e.g. share that you are prepared to join, but later share your apprehension because you fear that you might discover that you not like the gym. Chances are that the sales person, now focusing on closing a sale (not the free trial), will try to get you to sign by offering a sweetener such as: “Ok, would you sign now if we offer a guarantee that if you don’t like the gym after 2-3 weeks you get your money back”.

Isn’t that funny? Did you get what you want? Yes. Can you train for free for 2-3 weeks? Yes. Do you have to commit to more? No. Does the sales person think he or she lost the negotiation about the free trial? No. So were you met with resistance? No. Instead the salesperson gave you exactly what you wanted. And you didn’t even ask for it!

Note that the lesson in this blog post is not really about negotiating gym memberships. It is about dealing with ultra-competitive negotiators by having them not realize that they are in a competition. So… where else can you use this insight…?

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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…

“Yeah, but there’s just one problem…”

You make a proposal, you suggest and option or a solution…. And the first thing you hear is “Yeah, but there’s a problem…”

Oh no, not a PROBLEM! How can we possibly overcome a PROBLEM? Everything we’ve hoped for is ruined. We’re doomed!

Ok, I might be exaggerating here 😉 But the fact of the matter is that some of us are predisposed to focusing on the worst possible outcome – we’re on constant lookout for signs that we won’t get what we want. So when the other party raises a problem we instantly take that to confirm our worst fears. We extrapolate that to mean the deal is lost, that we won’t get what we want, and that we should cut our losses and walk away. And upon reflection we’ll get angry with ourselves for being so stupid to hope that anything good could ever happen to us.

In Negotiation Evolved – the book – we emphasise a situational approach, where we encourage you to acquire the skills that are most relevant for you, and most relevant in the current context. We think it is time to evolve past a one-size-fits all approach when it comes to negotiation and influence. And specifically, today’s insight will only be relevant for some of you – but perhaps very relevant.

For those readers who recognise themselves in the scenario above – I have a simple but powerful suggestion. How often in life is there only ONE problem between you and the outcomes you want to achieve? Might just ONE problem actually be good news…? Let’s try it out:

Other party: “Yeah, but there’s just one problem with doing what you propose…”

Negotiator: “That is fantastic news! I can’t tell you how relieved I am that we just have ONE problem. I was mentally prepared to have to work through a dozen, so one problem will be a walk in the park!