Be an Ally not an A-hole: The Prelude to Negotiation

November 27, 2017

Negotiation and conflict resolution begin with an understanding of general principles of human behavior. This is a prelude to any negotiation or conflict, regardless of industry specific issues. Stay tuned for what’s next.

The Takeaway: When you make yourself easy to agree with, there’s a better chance of reaching consensus. Remember, no one wants to make a deal with an a-hole. Make it hard for your counterpart to think of you as one, and you’re on your way.

Take Action: The most control you’re ever going to have is over yourself and your own actions. As you go throughout the next couple days, be conscious of your tone. Try to talk with everyone at work in a friendly and professional tone, no matter what! Pay attention to the difference your tone can make.

“But Brandon, how do I make myself easy to agree with? How do I get my counterpart to see me as an ally, not an a-hole?”

There’s some genuinely collaborative techniques to get there. But before we do, I need your buy in. To proceed, we need to agree that human beings aren’t running around out there making dollars-and-cents decisions. We’re less likely to agree to terms when we see their proponent as a jerk or perceive the terms as unfair. This remains true even though an outsider looking in would consider the deal a good one.

A Quick Story:

The dispute was over an employment contract that each alleged the other to have breached. From Roger’s perspective, his employee, Walt, had not lived up to his end of the bargain, and he fired Walt, paying him a reduced wage for the month. According to Roger, this was all proper under the contract. Walt sued for the full amount owed under the agreement.

Since Walt wasn’t Roger’s employee any longer, he didn’t feel it was his responsibility to do anything at all with equipment that he had for his job duties. He didn’t steal it, but he didn’t return it either– not his problem. Roger assumed that Walt had stolen–and maybe even sold–the equipment. Roger sued for theft of his property.

Roger’s claim was probably going to be for more money than what Walt’s was worth. After some mutual snarling at and posturing in front of one another, Roger put the deal on the table: I will walk away from my case if you walk away from yours.

I won’t get into specifics, but Walt didn’t take the deal, even though the dollars and cents were screaming at him to settle. Walt didn’t feel right about it, didn’t think it would have been fair. As you can see, his decision wasn’t based on money but on something else– Walt’s perception of the situation as being unfair, of his adversary as being evil, of the deal as being unjust.

Anecdotally, we know people don’t always make decisions based on financial interests. In fact, decisions often fly in the face of the financials because fairness is colored by emotion, feeling, and other subjective beliefs. Knowing this, what are the next steps to understanding some of the dynamics at play?

Fight or Flight?

First, how do your words and actions affect your counterpart? Second, how do your counterpart’s words and actions affect you?

Ever heard of fight or flight, that nifty little physiological tool that kicks in and makes your heart pound out of your chest? This survival mechanism has significant advantages and disadvantages. For example, we’ve all heard the story of the mother advantageously heaving a two-ton car off of her infant child. Disadvantageously, we may have heard about a victim that can barely dial 9-1-1 because he or she is shaking so badly. Both are the result of the fight-or-flight effects on the body.

Each example deals with a situation that placed someone in fear of loss of life. In the case of the mother, the life in question is her child’s. For the victim, fear of losing his or her own life causes the effect. However, psychology tells us that any type of perceived threat can cause this response in the body. What happens then? Defensive behavior. The fight or flight response encourages us to react in fight or flight mode–no dawdling, no thinking, just acting.

This is all well and good when you’re heaving a car off your kid. But consider that verbal and emotional conflict with others can also cause this response. Then what use is it? When negotiating or managing conflict, fighting or fleeing isn’t much use. Fighting is angry, posturing, abrasive, and counterproductive. Fleeing is clamming up, avoiding, acquiescing, and non-productive.

In the example above, Roger and Walt were acting aggressively towards one another. Each was convinced of his own righteousness and his adversary’s villainy. Instead of making himself easy to agree with, Roger poked, prodded, and incited. Instead of taking a very reasonable deal, Walt felt he had to fight. It was a carnival of threat, stress, and defensive reaction.

Although Roger and Walt are a doomed example of what not to do, we don’t all have to be doomed to repeat their cycle. As human beings with developed brains, we have options if we can recognize situations and work through them. And if we use the right techniques, we can tug our counterparts through a situation with minimal defensive behavior.

How to Be an Ally, Not an A-Hole

And now, back to that first question: How? Well, by being an ally and not an a-hole, we can minimize the defensive fight-or-flight reactions of others. And we can recognize those tendencies in ourselves and work through them, instead of giving into them. Keep in mind, all these techniques can be used to calm yourself and the other person. I’ve divided them up simply by where I see them as doing the most good. When using these suggestions, feel free to mix n’ match and even add your own techniques!

Three beginning steps to dealing with others’ abrasive behaviors:

(1) Seek first to understand

Really listen and ask questions. Your counterpart will appreciate your attentiveness. And by listening, you’ll build rapport while gathering information. When did understanding an adversary become a weakness?

Certainly, in combat one would want to understand the style, techniques, and training of an adversary. Similarly, by understanding the style, techniques, motivations, etc., of our negotiation counterparts, we can begin to frame the conversation collaboratively.

Does that sound weak to you?

(2) Let them know you understand

Your on-point questions will let your counterpart know you understand where they’re coming from. Acknowledge a counterpart’s concerns and summarize his or her interests. This lets the other negotiator know you’re taking the situation seriously and working with him or her. These techniques lead the angry negotiator to more tranquil waters.

(3) Frame the issue

By this point, your defensive counterpart will likely be significantly calmer. If your counterpart wasn’t abrasive to begin with, then he or she knows you’re there to work together, putting you even more in the game.

Frame the issue: What’s the mutual problem you are here to collaborate on? Ask for help solving it!

It isn’t so easy to do any of this when someone is acting out their “fight or flight” mode. Keep composed and calm. Use these techniques to bring your counterpart down. Rinse and repeat as necessary. If someone is really jazzed up, it might be necessary to reschedule the negotiation. Nothing productive is going to happen when one party is freaking out. Use a “cool down period” or other techniques to engage the more rational part of their brain.

Three beginner steps to dealing with your own abrasive behaviors:

(1) Preparation

Know your facts, including things like market rates, contractual provisions, prior dealings, legal/regulatory principles, events leading to present, etc. It isn’t enough to just know one side; rather, understanding your counterpart’s perception of the facts is equally important.

Preparing by going over the facts and figures is one thing. But getting ready for the emotional side of it is something else entirely. What is your counterpart going to hurl at you, and what’s your plan to overcome it?

We know that a perceived threat causes stress/fear, which causes a fight-or-flight response. So how are you going to deal with that kick in the gut? Role playing and practicing deescalating these situations ahead of time can make all the difference. For example, how will you respond to a first offer that’s insulting?

After all, by failing to prepare, you’re preparing to fail!

(2) Time

Don’t react. Think. This is hard to do in the moment. However, silence can be a powerful tool. Use a two to four second pause to collect yourself and buy time. If you’re really caught off guard, it might be best to schedule a more convenient time to talk. Nearly anything is better than derailing the situation with a verbal attack.

If you’re feeling like you might fly off the handle, ask for a moment to consider the situation before proceeding. Heck, asking to go to the bathroom is better than a sparring match.

(3) Tone

Most of communication isn’t what you say; it’s how you say it. Your tone should be professional and friendly almost all the time. Inflect it up when asking a question or seeking more information. Inflect it down to project comfort and control or if something isn’t up for further discussion.

At all costs, avoid sounding angry, sarcastic, passive aggressive, etc. Above all, remember that a defensive response by you is likely to trigger a defensive response by your counterpart, thus establishing an unproductive cycle that leads to the black hole of the legal system, administrative complaints, employee discipline, grievances, the works!

And that’s the basic prelude to negotiation and conflict and how to be an ally not an a-hole. 

Remember: Make it easy for someone to view you as an ally, and watch your negotiating counterpart take the path of least resistance. It’s true, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. Our goal, however, is to put a straw right to the horse’s lips.

I’ve seen these dynamics at work out there in the real world.  For other resources and more in depth information sign up for WDR email updates. Share your favorite post with friends and colleagues. 

For further resources and reading, check out Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As if Your Life Depended on It, The Boss Whispering Institute, the blog of expert negotiator Raphael Lapin, and the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.


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