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How To Fight Fires Without Burning Bridges

A little over a year ago, I was boarding a flight from New Orleans to Dallas/Fort Worth when a couple began to occupy the two adjacent seats. The wife got into her seat, but her husband, Bill (who looked as if he was held together by the medical equivalent of baling wire), couldn’t manage to sit. It was obvious he was in serious pain.

Sometimes you want to negotiate when you don’t feel as if you’re in a position of power. In this situation, I was a lowly airline passenger on a short flight. I derived power, however, from the fact that there was nothing to lose and everything to gain. It was in the husband’s interest to sit in a roomier, more comfortable seat. The flight attendant had an interest, as well; unless she could get Bill in a seat, the plane could not take off. It took a little work, but I was able to convince the flight attendant to move Bill to the only empty seat in first class. No one lost face, everyone’s interest had been considered, and the negotiation worked well for all. As a provider of negotiation training for corporate clients, I felt pleased to see benefits resulting from some of the techniques I teach.

Resolving, Managing and Preventing Conflicts

Whether the predicament is commercial lenders who are stressed out by the direction to “never lose a deal because of the rate,” department chiefs contending over budget issues,or human resources directors wrestling with issues of diversity – the use of good negotiation skills can resolve, manage, and, most importantly, prevent conflicts. According to the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want.” The question now becomes, “How many of the stakeholders can get what is in their interests?” If a business is to succeed in today’s climate, everyone must be prepared to negotiate to arrive at favorable results.

Pillars of Negotiational Wisdom

Negotiating is an art practiced by virtually everyone; it is a craft practiced by few. There are many techniques to making negotiation work. If you pay careful attention to the following factors, which I call the Eight Pillars of Negotiational Wisdom, you should find that negotiating, with all the stakeholders who are clamoring for your attention, will yield more efficiency, less stress, and greater long-term success.

Be Conscious of the difference between positions and interests.

If you can figure out why you want something – and why others want their outcome – then you are looking at interests. Interests are the building blocks of lasting agreements.

Be Creative.

Anyone can do things the same old way. Using brainstorming techniques, listening to outlandish proposals and opening up to unanticipated possibilities expands agreement opportunities. If you respond with new ideas and do the unexpected, you can open doors to far greater gains than when you behave predictably. Creativity can make everyone look good.

Be fair. If people feel a process is fair, they are more likely to make real commitments and less likely to walk away planning ways to wriggle out of the agreement. Sometimes things are helped when a neutral, external authority isused to measure fairness – a dictionary, a lab test, or an academic article, for instance.

Be prepared to commit.

You shouldn’t make a commitment unless you can fulfill it. Your commitment isn’t worth much unless the parties to the negotiation are Drop-Dead Decision-Makers. Moreover, commitment is not likely to result unless all parties feel the process has been fair.

Be an active listener. Communication takes place when information passes from a source to a receiver. If you spend all of your listening time planning how to zing the other party, then, when they finally stop talking, you haven’t heard them. Focus on what others say, both on their words and their underlying meaning. This will help you understand the interests upon which agreement can be based. When your response makes it clear that you’ve really been listening (and after the other party gets over the initial shock), they, too, may be more prepared to listen. Active listening can change the rules of the game and raise the level of civility in the negotiation.

Be conscious of the importance of the relationship.

Most of your negotiation is with repeaters (people you run across time after time such as your spouse and kids). The same is true for borrowers, directors, and representatives of affiliated institutions. If you understand the relative priority of the relationship, it can be easier to know when giving on a particular point may yield short term costs but long term gains.

Be aware of BATNAs.

BATNA stands for the Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement. Your BATNA is the situation you want to improve by negotiating with a given party or set of parties. If you can improve things on your own, you don’t need to negotiate. But BATNA is not your bottom line. It is a measure of the relative value of negotiating a particular issue with a particular party — or whether you can fall back on better alternatives. Be Prepared. In order to negotiate effectively, efficiently, and wisely, it is crucial to prepare. Your job is not to outline a perfect, total solution; that would be a positional approach. Preparation means studying the interests and BATNAs of every possible party. It means understanding the short and the long term consequences you use and the substantive results you pursue. Doing your homework can save a lot of time.

Enhancing Negotiation Skills

Enhancing your negotiating skills is an important element of personal development. Helping your colleagues and staff to negotiate better will save time, reduce stress, and increase productivity. The changing cast of stakeholders means that successfully negotiating the minefields in the business world can be crucial to your own health and success.

As you consider the brief lessons contained herein, it makes sense to remember the old story about the New York tourist. She asked a passerby, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” The response: “Practice, Practice, Practice.”


Steven P. Cohen

Steven P. Cohen, President of The Negotiation Skills Company in Pride's Crossing, MA is a graduate of Columbia Law School and Brandeis University. Mr. Cohen received formal training in Negotiation, Advanced Negotiation, and Mediation at Harvard Law School where he was appointed a member of the Alumni Advisory Board of… MORE >

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