Do better than win/win

It is Tuesday morning, and I complement my negotiation coaching session with the soothing and tranquil soundtrack of a high-powered leaf blower in the background.

I peek outside the window, and see the building maintenance guy vigorously chasing an ever moving mountain of leaves. When I later leave (badum-tish!) for lunch I can’t help but notice how pristinely spotless the property looks. Well done Mr Leafblowerman! Certainly a win/win transaction, right?

Yes, but that’s not good enough. Let me explain.

On Wednesday mornings I again enjoy the soundtrack of a leaf blower, but the relaxing acoustics sound slightly different as they now originate from the building next door. I again glance out the window, and see Mrs Leafblowerwoman standing in a cloud of dust and leaves. She has managed to lift everything off the ground, and is now patiently waiting for it all to settle… on our side of the fence.

HEY WAIT A SECOND!! She is doing exactly what our guy is doing. And if we had a win/win negotiation with him, then surely our neighbours have win/win negotiating with her? But I’m certainly less excited about their deal – particularly as my car is now covered with dust and leaves. How could this possibly be a win/win?

Here’s what’s going on – we are using too simplified labels to describe negotiation. In our book we deal with this by describing four negotiation dynamics.

  • The first one is about dividing value, or transferring value (or problems!) from one party to another. This usually results in win/lose outcomes.
  • The second focuses on ensuring that value is increased for both parties. However, it is important to realise that sometimes this value is not created, but rather transferred from other parties who are not part of our negotiation! Thus a win/win deal between two parties may still be a win/lose deal between this group and other parties!

If value is merely transferred in the system, then value is not created, and therefore our actions are zero-sum – if someone wins, then someone, somewhere, loses.

We can contrast this with a sustainable approach to negotiation, which is focused on creating and maximising value in the system. In the book we refer to this as maximisation, and boy is it powerful. And it doesn’t have to be difficult. In our leaf blower example, if Mr and Mrs Leafblowerperson instead pick up the leaves and put them in the bin, then the leaves (i.e. the problem) would be removed from the system, as opposed to being perpetually passed around.

Being right is not important, but it can be dangerous

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

Negotiation is often discussed in the context of business transactions. And in that context the approach that most of us follow intuitively centers around trying to win by getting the biggest chunk of (what we perceive to be) the available value. (This may be a good time to ready my previous blog on: Why we don’t know what we want.)

But most of our negotiations are not large monetary transactions with similarly groomed executives in high-rise boardrooms. They are simply interactions with others. These interactions may have little to do with money, and everything to do with something much more important to us; being right! Actually, simply being right is not enough – we want the other party to concede that we are right and that they are wrong.

This is a predictable pattern of behaviour. Negotiators love predictability because it gives us greater control of the negotiation. Specifically, if we realize that it is hugely important for the other party to feel that they are right, then we may simply let them be right.

E.g., if I propose a solution to something, e.g. gun control in a previous blog, then I’m not married to the specific recommendation. What I do care about is an outcome that works for everyone, regardless of who came up with that outcome. So if the other party I negotiate with doesn’t like my idea then I simply invite them to help me out: “If you didn’t like my proposal, then how do you recommend we improve it so that it does a better job of catering to all stakeholders’ needs?”

As long as the solution the other party comes up with is better for all, then the only drawback of this approach is that I don’t get credit for the outcome. Unfortunately, this is one major reason why “the skilled negotiator” is such a rare breed – because few of us are prepared to give up credit and recognition! (As described in my upcoming book, having a sensitive ego and being a skilled negotiator are not compatible.) 

Ok, so letting the other party believe that they are right can be beneficial. But can it ever be dangerous? Unfortunately, yes.

If parties don’t look for outcomes that work for all, but rather pursue self-serving outcomes at the expense of others, then suddenly believing that one is right becomes a very dangerous ingredient. Some of the worst atrocities in history have occurred as a direct result of one or more parties justifying their (often greedy, unethical, illegal or inhumane) actions with self-serving beliefs such as “We are the good guys”, “We are right”, or “God is on our side”. In these circumstances, logic and rational thinking effectively get switched off, and we need different tools to resolve the situation than those covered today.

Negotiations never involve just two parties

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

A common misconception about negotiation is that there are only two relevant parties to most negotiations; “us” and “them”. In reality this is never the case. Whether we consider contract negotiations between companies, relationship negotiations between romantic partners, second hand car purchases, or crisis negotiations between law enforcement and perpetrators, there arealways additional stakeholders who either:

  • Can influence the outcome
  • Are affected by the outcome

One of the cruellest lectures I give (and I always apologise for this ☺) is the one on advanced stakeholder analysis in negotiation. In one hour I reveal how tremendously complex it becomes to manage the negotiation process once we begin to understand the real dynamics in the system. It is cruel because participants have usually enjoyed the topic of negotiation up to this point, and now they suddenly realize that negotiation is challenging, and requires a lot of work if we want to increase our influence over outcomes.

In one hour I only have time to cover the first 20 or so stakeholders that we wish to consider for most negotiations between organisations. Not only does this map include many stakeholders, but we also wish to understand about one hundred things about each stakeholder, e.g.:

  • What does each party want?
  • What does each individual want?
  • Who sides with whom? What sub-coalitions can we see? And how do these coalitions change based on the options on the table?
  • Who communicates with whom? Who listens to whom?
  • Who likes whom? Who trusts whom? Who might seek revenge with whom?
  • Which parties are dependent on others? Which parties are replaceable?
  • And much, much more!

And we haven’t even reached the cruel part yet. Where my participants’ collective spirit is usually crushed is just after I ask the question: “Is this map static?” The answer is of course “no”. Any change in the negotiation can drastically change the stakeholder map. Even discussing two separate options/solutions may require two completely separate stakeholder maps!

Ramsay Taum, an expert on sustainability in Hawaii, gave one of the best presentations I have ever attended. In passing he mentioned that the local tradition is to always include empty chairs in meetings, because these chairs help remind those present of the relevant stakeholders that aren’t present in the meeting. I strongly recommend making this practice tradition for all our negotiations as well.