Fear in intractable negotiations

In the book we briefly refer to a couple of intractable negotiations (e.g. abortion, climate change, gun control). The purpose is not to take a stand on the issues (we let others do that), but rather to illustrate what techniques might be applied to move both polarised parties in each of these negotiations towards agreement.

One of the techniques described in the book is chunking, where we break a large issue into smaller pieces (see it applied to gun control in this earlier post). This process often results in several pieces that parties find trivial to agree on. This enables progress, and fewer issues remain to be resolved. Whether or not this process results in agreement on all issues is immaterial. The point is that we are much better off than before, when we were deadlocked arguing “yes” or “no” for the giant topic of gun control.

Consistent with the technique of chunking, the Obama administration yesterday announced measures aimed at limiting access to firearms for the mentally ill. Agreement on this piece would benefit everyone and would not negatively affect gun advocates in any material way. Logically we might then expect agreement on the issue.

But we haven’t yet accounted for another important element; fear. Specifically fear of the slippery slope. Gun advocates may fear that agreeing on this option now somehow sets a process in motion that could result in them losing all rights to guns in the future. In other words, that agreeing to anything might mean they have to agree to everything. And when fear is an element in the negotiation, it often trumps everything else.

As negotiators, when we identify fear we also seek to address it. While for the affected person fear is merely a feeling, negotiators know that fear is caused by unmet needs. Often the unmet need is the perceived lack of certainty. People will fear the worst-case scenario because they don’t perceive adequate assurances that the worst-case scenario won’t happen.

So that’s one additional thing that gun advocates need here; assurances that their perceived worst-case scenario won’t happen.

“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!