“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…

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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.

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.

Stubbornness, pride and general pettiness in our negotiations

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

Let me begin today’s entry by clarifying two points:

  • Yes, I am, in fact, a professional negotiator. Really.
  • While I introduce four separate approaches to negotiation in my book, we all revert to the least productive approach from time to time; the one where parties seek to develop power in order to make the other give in.

Girlfriend: “Can you please hold my bag for a second?”
Negotiator: “Sure.”
Girlfriend: “Ha! Now you carry it!”
Negotiator: “No honey. You insist on bringing all this unnecessary stuff with you on our walks, so you carry the bag.”
Girlfriend: “Well I’m not going to carry it.”
Negotiator: “Ok, I’ll just leave it here on the ground then.”
Girlfriend: “Fine. Go ahead. I know you will break before I do.”

This is 10pm at night. In the bag my girlfriend has her phone, money, keys, ID, (and probably two bricks, a tent, scuba diving gear, a coffee machine…). We start walking away. About 50m away I look over my shoulder to make sure the bag is still there. My girlfriend smiles. She smells victory. She knows that I’m too uncomfortable with the risk of someone stealing the bag. 100m away. 150m away. The bag is now a small dot in the distance. As we pass a man walking in the opposite direction, I seize my chance to influence my girlfriend.

Negotiator: “Honey, doesn’t he look a bit shady? I reckon he might steal your bag.”
Girlfriend: “I guess you better go get it then.”

Damn. She countered my tactic. Very uncomfortable with the risk and stakes in this negotiation, and not being able to take my eyes off the bag, I stop walking.

Negotiator: “Ok, well I’m too uncomfortable with this. I’m not going to get your bag, but I will stay right here and watch out for anyone stealing it. You better hurry up and go get it before anyone else does.”
Girlfriend: “I’m not going to get it.”
Negotiator: “Hey, that car just made a U-turn and is pulling up next to your bag. They most definitely saw it.”

No reaction from my girlfriend as she stands her ground. I start running towards the bag. Halfway there, red and blue lights start flashing from the dashboard, indicating that this is in fact an undercover police car. While running, I wave with both hands, signalling that it is my (girlfriend’s) bag.

Police (with a stern voice): “Is this your bag?”
Negotiator: “It’s my girlfriend’s bag.”
Police: “Why did she leave it here?”
Negotiator: “ Because she is a stubborn, stubborn girl and she has to win.”
Police: “So why don’t you carry it?”
Negotiator: “I can’t give in. If I do this for her then she’ll start making all the rules in the relationship.”

At this point the two under cover police officers smile and give each other a knowing look. I tell myself that this is because they understand what I’m going through here.

And then she arrives, walking slowly towards us. I recognise that smug grin. It now extends from ear to ear.

Girlfriend: “I won!”
Negotiator: “No you didn’t. I’m still not going to carry your bag. I was just not prepared to lose your bag to make a point. We both know that you will do anything win. So I’m just going to sit here, next to the bag, until you pick it up.”
Girlfriend: “Well then we’ll be here for a while.”

The cops drive away. I feel good about giving them something to talk about on their otherwise uneventful night shift.

Negotiator: “Just… pick… the… bag… up! I’ve had a long day and I’m tired.”

At this point the negotiation changed from negotiation game 1 to game 2, the one where we seek to understand and satisfy the needs of both parties.

Girlfriend: “Awww, yes you look very tired. Here, give me the bag and let’s go.”

On the walk home, it took all my willpower to not tell her: “I won”… ☺