What is negotiation, anyway?
Many people get uncomfortable when they hear the word, “negotiation.” They begin having ideas about contracts, money, lawyers, and all kinds of potential deceptions and “gotchas.” They have an idea of “a negotiator” as someone who deals in contracts, labor/management disputes, or multi-million-dollar business deals. While negotiation is certainly involved in these areas, there’s one fundamental fact to keep in mind:
We all negotiate—every day.
Negotiation is very simple when we look at what it’s all about. It’s dealing with others to settle differences and come to an agreement that satisfies all parties. With that definition, you do this all the time at work, at home, with kids, with friends…with everyone.
Getting Your Mind Right
Think of negotiation as problem-solving, conflict resolution, conflict management, critical conversations, and even employee performance management, because these terms are all about communication and reconciling differences.
We negotiate every day about all kinds of things, and it doesn’t have to be a distasteful or uncomfortable process, because negotiation is part of how we make our way in the world.
Negotiation is a skill that everyone should have—even if we don’t consider ourselves “professional” negotiators. Everyone can get better at negotiation, which means better outcomes and better relationships with the people we negotiate with. And those two elements—outcome and relationship—are fundamental to resolving any conflict or disagreement.
The biggest reason for poor experiences with negotiation and poor relationships afterward is that many negotiators take a stereotypical approach to negotiation: I want all I can get, it’s “my way or the highway,” and I want to win at all costs. Unfortunately, the biggest costs are outcomes that are less than satisfactory (for both parties) and relationships that are ruined—often permanently.
Here’s the big problem: Even if you say you’re never going to negotiate with someone again so you get all you can and never mind the relationship, the people who get screwed will make sure to tell as many other people as possible. Word travels fast with instant electronic communication, so you’ll enter your next negotiation with not only a damaged reputation but the other side will be armored up and prepared for whatever you do.
There’s a much better approach to settling disagreements, but let’s look at the usual approaches in more detail first.
Soft Bargaining and Hard Bargaining = Positional Bargaining
Soft and hard bargaining involves negotiating a position rather than interests. Whether a negotiation concerns a contract, a family quarrel, or a peace settlement between nations, people routinely engage in positional bargaining. Each side takes a position, argues for it, and makes concessions to reach compromise.
To avoid some of the common problems associated with bargaining over positions, negotiators who take a soft approach treat the participants mainly as friends or colleagues, seeking agreement at almost any cost, and offering concessions as a way to create or preserve a positive relationship with the other side. A soft bargainer behaves transparently, sharing their bottom line, which can leave them vulnerable to a hard bargainer who is competitive, hides their bottom line, and offers few concessions if any. In a negotiation between a soft and hard bargainer, the hard approach will almost always come out with a much better deal.
When negotiators bargain over positions (“I want X”), they tend to lock themselves into those positions. The more you defend your position against attack, the more committed you become to it. The more you try to convince the other side of the impossibility of changing your position, the more difficult it becomes for you to do so. Your ego also becomes identified with your position and you now need to save face. Any agreement you reach must be explained in light of your hard-fought position.
When more attention is paid to positions, less attention is devoted to meeting the underlying interests of both parties, and agreement becomes less likely. Any agreement reached may reflect a mechanical “splitting the difference” between final positions, rather than a solution carefully crafted to meet the legitimate interests of the parties. The result is frequently an agreement less satisfactory to each side than it could have been. If I say my position is, “I want X,” rather than explaining what need I’m trying to achieve with that position (my interest), then we both get locked into a contest.
Positional bargaining becomes a contest of wills. Each negotiator asserts what he or she will and won’t do. The task of jointly devising an acceptable solution tends to become a battle. Each side tries through sheer willpower to force the other to change their position. Anger and resentment often result as one side sees itself bending to the rigid will of the other, while its own legitimate concerns (underlying interests) go unaddressed.
A Better Approach—Principled Negotiation
Roger Fisher and William L. Ury, part of the team that produced the Camp David Accords during the Carter Administration, published a ground-breaking book in 1982 titled, “Getting to Yes.” Fisher and Ury’s method is called Principled Negotiation, and when the book was published, it represented a vastly different approach from the “hard” versus “soft” positional bargaining that the business world was familiar with. Principled Negotiation has been further refined over the years, and it’s now practiced routinely all over the world.
There are four parts to the Principled Negotiation approach:
While it’s beyond the scope of this blog post to delve into the detail of “Getting to Yes,” the book is a quick read and it’ll help some light bulbs go off in your head about your own approaches to problem-solving and negotiation. For now, and to close out this overview, here are some suggestions.
General guidelines for defining interests and inventing options:
Negotiation, problem-solving, conflict resolution…whatever you choose to call it, it’s really all the same thing. If you’re willing to alter some of the ways you’ve always done things and change the way you’ve always thought about things, you’ll be on your way to better outcomes—and better relationships, too!
“Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In.” Roger Fisher and William Ury
“Getting Past No: Negotiating in Difficult Situations.” William Ury
“Negotiation Genius: How to Overcome Obstacles and Achieve Brilliant Results at the Bargaining Table and Beyond.” Deepak Malhotra and Max Bazerman (Harvard Business School)