A bit of give & take

Negotiations represent a minefield of twisted emotions and subtle manoeuvres. Stephen Overell provides a guide

Two sisters have one orange. Both sisters want it but they cannot decide who should have it. They squabble and wrestle over the problem but in the end are forced to settle the dispute in what seems the only obvious way – they halve it. The first sister takes her half, peels it, squeezes it and makes orange juice. The second takes her half, peels it, throws the orange away and puts the peel in a cake.

The world of negotiation is full of such homely parables. This one, the favourite of Chris Lake, assistant director of Roffey Park Management Institute, is designed to illustrate some of the key principles of successful negotiating.

The sisters failed to focus on interests rather than positions and consequently failed to find “the win-win solution”. They failed to identify the core problem by not considering a variety of possibilities. They failed to separate the person from the problem and did not explore the best and worst resolutions that could have been acceptable to both. Both were unsatisfied.

“Too many negotiations fail because people are so worried about being taken advantage of that they forget their needs,” says professor Edward Wertheim, of the College of Business Administration at Northeastern University (UK).

The main starting point in becoming a better negotiator, according to the academic literature on the subject, is to understand the inevitable nature of conflict at work. Interests will always differ, and there is often no right or wrong response.

Bargaining aimed at winning and defeating the opponent is obviously a skill in itself, but there are negative consequences, especially if you have an on-going relationship with the other party. As a general rule, negotiations will go best if both sides approach it with a problem-solving attitude and aiming at a win-win.

Reason vs emotion

Anyone who has done it before will know that reason plays an equal role with emotion in negotiation. The failure of two people to find an optimal solution usually stems from intangible factors such as the assumptions each makes about the other, likes or dislikes, how important “winning” is to one of them. Classically, disagreements are often constructed on trivial things to provide a justification for conflict over something else.

Getting around such problems involves a great deal of self-examination and thought about the central problem. Negotiation experts talk repeatedly about a “Batna” – the Best Alternative To Negotiated Agreement. Understanding and countering the attractions of not reaching an agreement can help prevent conflicts escalating into the realms of magnified differences, lies, threats, distortions and people becoming locked into positions.

Thus it is vital to increase lines of communication and set about building trust and cooperation. Careful note must be taken of the flow of negotiation with a clear understanding of minimum and maximum positions and the relative weaknesses of both sides.

Think about low-cost alternatives that might have a high value to the other person – the alternatives that allow the opponent to declare victory.

If the agreement does not satisfy both sides, the chances are it will not endure. Beneath hardened positions are often common interests. It is a mistake to attack an opponent personally because if the other person feels threatened, it makes attacking the real problem more difficult.

The books tend to counsel that if you are attacked, it is the wise response not to take it personally but to let the other party blow off steam and try to understand the problem behind the aggression.

Taking the time to define the problem in a mutually acceptable way can prevent the other person becoming defensive. The famous example is with a student-teacher relationship. It is politic for the student to say, “I don’t understand this”, in preference to, “You’re not teaching me well”.

Assertiveness, stubbornness or wheedling has little place in successful negotiating. Careful thought about the opponent does. The negotiator needs to know how far the opponent can be pushed, how open or concealed the position should be and which constituencies the other party is trying to appease as well as whether they can be trusted.

If people are pushed to the extent that they feel they are going to lose, they will fight back. Losers are not committed to the bargain and it can harm the reputation of the negotiator. In this sense, conflict needs to be seen as a process.

So how are win-lose situations to be turned into win-wins? Viable techniques include humour, letting the other vent their feelings, acknowledging their views, making a small concession as a signal of good faith, listening hard in the middle of conflict, rephrasing the other’s comments and mirroring their views. It is worth establishing common ground, finding a common enemy – anything which lets you focus less on the position and more on the other’s needs.

It is a useful technique to try to control the issues by slicing the larger bits into smaller pieces. You can refine their demands, reformulate, repackage, sweeten.

Similarly, it is possible to try some negotiating “jujitsu”: when the other side pushes, don’t push back. Use their attack as an attack on mutual problems. Ask questions instead of making statements and respond with prolonged silence in the face of unreason.

As to the old question about whether it is acceptable to mislead for the sake of negotiation, the answer will depend on where the line between discretion and misrepresentation is drawn. Perhaps it is worth reflecting on the guidance contained in an ancient copy of the British Diplomatic Service manual. “Nothing may be said which is not true,” it advises. “But it is as unnecessary as it is sometimes undesirable to say everything relevant which is true.”

Gerald Atkinson, visiting tutor in negotiation at Henley School of Management, says: “The best negotiators are born, not made. But most of us regard it as a necessary evil and so we might as well get better at it. Those who regard themselves as good negotiators tend to get the best deals.”

Key lessons from skilled negotiators

• Be unconditionally constructive

• Respect the right to differ

• Deal with equals and be receptive

• Share responsibility for solving the problem

• Learn from successes and mistakes.

• Bargain over interests, not positions

• Depersonalise the situation

• Separate problem definition from the search for solutions

• Generate alternative solutions

• Try to use objective criteria

• Never corner an opponent

• Assist them in face-saving

• Put yourself in the opponent’s shoes and see yourself in their eyes

• Avoid self-righteousness

Some types of negotiator

Aggressive: unsettle people with personal remarks, put them down and be unreasonable.

The long-pauser: listen but don’t answer, appear to give it considerable thought with long silence in the hope of getting more information.

The mocker: mock and sneer and hope the other gets so upset that they will say something they might regret.

The interrogator: meet all proposals with searching questions that imply holes in their argument; always ask them to explain further.

The cloak of reasonableness: appear reasonable while making impossible demands.

The divide-and-conquer technique: produce dissension among opposition so they have to pay attention to internal disagreements. Play one member off against the other.

The act dumb technique: hope the opposition finds increasingly simple ways to describe proposals with each repeated elaboration and simplification.

Expert facilitators offer some advice on dealing successfully with different types of situation

Situation: The union-management meeting

Facilitator: Chris Lake, Roffey Park Management Institute

• Before the meeting begins, Lake advises that it is necessary to separate the person from the problem. The union negotiator may have represented someone in a difficult tribunal case and won, but has come to talk about something else. It is important not to let personal reactions about one thing influence your behaviour in another.

Pay attention to things like the positions of the chairs – don’t position the union negotiator’s chair towards sunlight, because he or she will sense a trap. Similarly, if someone uses such a trick on you, try not to let it bother you; say, “Do you mind if I move my chair?”

Focus on interests rather than positions; seek to understand the other person’s interests which underlie their position. For instance, if the union negotiator says, “We are not doing that unless we get £2,000″, there is a clear mixed message and a room for compromise: it is not “no”, it is “no, but maybe”.

Understand their interest in face-saving and cooperate with it – they may have a vote mandating them which they cannot easily sidestep. People are often constrained by their own definitions of success that prevent them seeing win-win situations. For instance, if management wants to relocate and the union says no, it would appear that there are two intractable positions and two options. But by introducing other options, such as relocating to somewhere else, it might be possible to satisfy both sides.

Similarly, by widening the discussion – more bus services, subsidised parking, outplacement – it lays the ground for a mutual problem-solving approach. But Lake advises that is also important to know your Batna, your walk-away position, which you must attain at all costs.

Situation: Changing the terms of a contract

Facilitator: Gerald Atkinson, visiting tutor in negotiation at Henley School of Management

• If it is you that wants to change the contract, Atkinson says it is often useful to try to get the other person to make the first move towards change, to “develop the wobble” in the other – the sense that the status quo is not an option.

Next it is important to understand the full range of discussion. Is it one item on the contract or many? And what is your fall-back position if you don’t achieve what you wanted: to impose a contract?

Then there are broadly two options. First there is the general approach, aiming at a win-win. You can adopt a strategy of progression, moving from the least contentious issue up to the more contentious. In doing this, it is worth emphasising the good relations, the value of the employee, the pressures that are on you, the benefits for the future, what you have to offer them – in other words, try to make a rational case.

Often a persuasive argument is that change is necessary to prepare for the future; sowing the seeds for a stable future, and so on.

The second option is the use of straight pressure: we are not happy with this aspect of the contract, but we can help you in another. But he advises to remember that, whatever the reality, people have to believe they have the best contract possible. He quotes the Scottish philosopher, David Hume: “Reason is and always will be the slave of passion.”

He warns that while it is nice if you can think in terms of interests, on the whole people tend to think in terms of narrow issues; positions are usually mandated and people are not interested in items beyond set parameters. They will not move unless they are getting something in return, and you should do the same.

To create movement, it is worth linking items of roughly equal value to create “a tension of movement”, if you give me this, I will concede that, so to speak.

Situation: Convincing the board of a new HR policy

Facilitator Roy Webb, PSC Negotiate

• This situation is not quite the same as a negotiation, argues Webb. It veers rather into the territory of persuasion, which is not the same: a negotiation is about an exchange.

“Negotiation relies on the perception that one side has what the other wants,” he argues. “Persuasion relies on convincing the other side of the merits of the case, rather than a quid pro quo.”

Thus, while the first step again is establishing the joint interest in solving a given problem, in this case the common interest can be taken for granted. The board almost certainly has the same goals; the only thing to negotiate over is the amount of money to be spent on it.

The second phase would be to identify each individual inhibition that prevents action. These have to be worked on individually, as, he says, each inhibition translates into a “no”. Once the problems are identified, the process has begun.

The key act in any negotiation situation is that someone makes a proposal. Webb advises to remember this can put the proposer in a position of power, as they are entitled to an explanation why it is not acceptable. The explanation can be worked on as part of an on-going process. Negotiation is a process and once you have defined the scope of the discussion, the bargaining can begin.”

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