negotiation

This may be the best question you can ask

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When I was traveling a few weeks ago, my husband and I were flying different airlines. When I got to baggage claim, I realized his flight wasn’t coming to my terminal. I asked the woman at the information desk where to find his airline. She told me it arrived at a terminal three miles away.

Flustered, I was about to head back up the escalators to find the shuttle when she continued, “May I ask why?”

I gave her my details.

She said, “This is just a suggestion, but since you’re renting a car, you might want to each take the shuttle to the rental place and meet there. It’ll save you a trip.”

She could have just answered my question and let me barrel off. Instead, she took the time to ask for information and to offer some clear thinking when I was frazzled from the flight.

That was a good question.

There’s a lot of discussion and research available about how to move from positions (I have to do this) to interests (what am I really after – might I get there in a way that gets you there too?).

Asking “Why?” may be your best move.

When we’re considering regulations, we might tend towards “I need this type of documentation.”

Why? Maybe because we’re after a piece of data. Or maybe we’re trying to be sure something that happened once doesn’t happen again, but we’ve put an overly complicated system to place to guard us from that possibility.

Asking “why?” makes you consider your underlying interests and your reasoning.

We had a process in place that had been unquestioned for years, until someone called me about it. “Why do you do this thing first, then the other? Why can’t they happen at the same time?”

Good question.

I asked and it turned out that our system was set up when two functions were in separate locations and one side was routinely circumvented. So the other side said “you have to get their approval first, then ours.”

Now that everyone is on the same software, both functions are tracked in the same system. There was no longer a need for the sequencing, but the process hadn’t changed.

Until someone asked “why?”

It took us 3 minutes to make that change.

That was a great question.

Tear Down the Argument to Build Agreement

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We had a department store in our town that is being converted into a new movie theater and shops. I drove by today and all that was left of the old store were piles of debris and the metal structure sticking out in the 90* heat.  I could still imagine where the door had been, the shoes, the connection to the rest of the mall, but it looked so different that I could also imagine big theater screens, new seating, and openings to restaurants where there had been blank walls.

I love this stage of renovation, when you’re freed up from what you used to know about a space or a place, and your mind begins to see the possibilities.

In the middle of an argument or conflict, it can feel like you’re dealing with a lot of “knowns” but, if you can get down to the structure of the situation, there are usually more possibilities than we first see.

The metal framework is the essential area for discussion. The bricks, doors, windows, wires, tiles – they’re all extra. They shape the final form and function of the space, turning a two-story box into a department store, a theater, or something else altogether.

Usually, when we walk into a negotiation of any sort, we come with our building. We know what we want from the interaction and how the agreement should look when we come out.

What’s difficult is to engage with an open mind about what the other person sees, to work with them to tear down their building (and yours!), and construct something together that works for everyone.

At the heart of this approach is listening to understand. Since we’re not mind readers, we have to ask questions. Lots of questions.

I deal with a lot of situations that appear to be black-and-white at first. “We can’t do that, can’t approve that, it has to be like this, that’s impossible, can’t be done, this is the only way….etc.” These are position statements.

Usually, there’s a very good purpose behind the initial statement. Finding out what they’re concerned about (safety? cost? management? precedent?) and sharing your interest (and don’t slip a position in here – be genuine about what’s important to you) gives you an opportunity to ask my favorite question: “Is there a way for us to meet both our needs here?”

This approach takes time and a willingness to remain calm, keep asking and digging, and listening for the interests and concerns behind the words.

“How do we both win?” It’s the golden question that, when coupled with really hearing what the other person needs are, can help move us into constructing a shared solution.

Hello, Conflict Calling!

I’m not sure what possessed me to schedule a difficult one-and-a-half-hour conference call for first thing on a Monday morning a while back, but I did. And when we used the entire time and had to continue it into the three to five p.m. slot, I felt bookended by conflict.

There are a lot of days like this. A lot of weeks like this, aren’t there?

In this particular situation, we were going through a lengthy project topic by topic, sharing comments and points of view, which sometimes sounded more like “we won’t do this” and “well, we need to have this.”  Did I mention this was all on a conference call?

I put on my best listening persona and tried to really sink into the role of hearing what was important to both of us and listening for clues. I suppose the fact that it was Monday was ultimately helpful. I was reasonably well rested after a lovely weekend and able to step out of the situation a bit to notice the times when I wasn’t as focused or as effective. I noticed several situations that made it harder to communicate well:

  1. Several times it was clear to me that the other party hadn’t read or hadn’t understood the part of the document we were discussing. (Why do you keep saying things that aren’t accurate?)
  2. There was one instance when they were pushing for something we couldn’t do. I couldn’t offer what they needed; they weren’t hearing the base piece of information (not ours to offer) so I felt like we were in a one-sided argument. (Why can’t you stop asking about this? I can’t give you what you want!)
  3. There were times when I felt frustrated by the sheer number of follow-up items and stressed by the impending deadline. (How will we ever pull this together if you keep asking for more changes?)
  4. The conference call itself is sometimes a problem. In the absence of body language – poised to speak, mouth open, nodding – people tend to talk longer than necessary in order to get their point across in the void. (When will s/he stop talking so I can answer the question and we can move on?

The most humbling realization, however, was that the folks on the other end of the line were probably thinking the same things about me and my co-workers. There were some sections we’d suggested changing or adding that were covered elsewhere. I could tell that they, too, were nervous about making our deadline work, there were things we were pretty stubborn about, and I’ll bet you a nickle I talked too long at least once!

This evening, I was thinking about the whole situation and the great satisfaction I get out of solving complicated problems. I love this kind of work, but it’s not easy.

We all have to deal with work situations that are full of those moments of conflict. Listening carefully and just saying out loud some of those things in parentheses seems to help. It also pushes us to think empathetically – what’s going on with that other person and how can I reach them?

Here are some of the things I tried:

  1. Instead of “why didn’t you read this”, I tried “I know you just got this, do you need time to read it?”
  2. Instead of “I can’t do that” , we offered “Would it help to understand the relationship between these two pieces of information?”
  3. Instead of “We can’t keep adding to this list”, how about “We’re adding a lot to our list, perhaps at the end we should take a few minutes to discuss how we’ll get it done?”
  4. But that last one…..I’m still not sure how to get body language in a conference call, Skype, perhaps?

What are your tips for conference call negotiations?