Negotiation is a process used to reach agreement and resolve conflict. Demands and offers describe the position changes in a negotiation. Resolution of the conflict or settlement occurs when parties reach an agreement by using negotiation to find agreement.
Negotiation is an active process, engaged in by parties who have a stake in the outcome. Mediation makes use of a neutral, the mediator, to assist the parties in negotiating a resolution.
Negotiation strategy is informed by an evaluation of the risk represented by potential outcomes of a negotiation. For instance, in a negotiation for the purchase of a home, how will you feel if you are not successful and someone else buys the home? If you can live with the outcome either way, meaning that it matters little if you get the house or not, then you can make an offer that you can afford. If the offer is not accepted, then you can walk away. If, on the other hand, you have to buy the house at all costs because like Mary Poppins, it is “practically perfect in every way,” then you must then stay in the negotiation and be willing to continue bidding, even if the resulting mortgage will cause financial strain.
Asking a child to pick their clothes off the floor is another example of a negotiation. When you make the request, “Please pick up your clothes,” the child evaluates the risks of non-compliance. If it is the third request and the child has learned that non-compliance carries no risk, it is unlikely that you will succeed in your negotiation.
Whether a negotiation is simple or complex, each party asks the question, “What’s in it for me?” The answer can be positive or negative. In the example above, a child might think, “If I do not pick up my clothes, I will be grounded this weekend.” If the plans for the weekend are worth more than the effort of picking up the clothes, then the answer to the question, “What’s in it for me?” is that the child will be able to participate in the weekend activities. If there is no consequence for not picking up the clothes, the answer is, “if I ignore the demand, I will still be able to go out this weekend.”
Each of us has a conflict “style.” In the example above, the child is learning a conflict style by comparing outcomes to various conflict responses. As adults, our conflict style is informed by our life experiences. When presented with conflict, we tend to react to the situation based on the assumptions made from prior experiences. In order to become a better negotiator, it is important to understand how to respond to conflict, and why. Informed negotiation is responsive, not reactive. Responsiveness, in this case, means pausing and evaluating the conflict rather than allowing a fight-or-flight reaction to dictate the response.
Reflecting on a problem, in order to respond thoughtfully, opens up a world of possible responses whereas reacting provides only one response. The fight-or-flight response evolved in humans as a survival mechanism, but the threats we face in ordinary life are usually verbal, not physical. Imminent physical threats require immediate action. Verbal threats, abuse or attacks, cannot cause direct physical harm but psychologically, they can be just as dangerous. It is natural to want to avoid harm, but there is an opportunity to pause when faced with a purely verbal attack. Because our response to conflict is informed by life experience, it can be difficult to separate the risks associated with physical versus verbal conflict, but it is a worthwhile effort.
Tips, Tricks and Tactics
Negotiating is a skill that benefits from practice. Like any skill, it is useful to be comfortable with the basics before attempting tricks. Imagine the result if, before learning to ride a bike, you tried to learn to pop wheelies. Luckily, the opportunities to practice negotiating are all around us.
A good place to start is learning to decline a suggestion and offering an alternative. Practice negotiating in a low risk situation such as deciding what movie to see. If you find conflict frightening as so many of us do, begin by getting comfortable declining an initial suggestion and offering an alternative. If your alternative is not accepted, it is okay to stop the exercise. If you are conflict averse, just learning to decline and offer an alternative is a big step forward in learning to negotiate.
Becoming a better negotiator means finding the edge of your comfort zone and then practice pushing beyond it, a little at a time.