Electives Insights: Becoming a ‘good’ negotiator
At the beginning of the spring semester, I entered my Negotiations class with a defeatist attitude. I’m going to be awful at this. I hate conflict, I don’t like being aggressive, I don’t like when people are upset with me. I just want to get through these negotiations as quickly as possible without letting others take advantage of me.
I quickly realized that this was a terrible way to start off a class, so I tried to examine what was at the root of my negotiation negativity. Perhaps watching too many episodes of Shark Tank has led me to believe that aggression and intimidation are the only effective negotiation tactics. Perhaps I’ve succumbed to the notion that as a woman I’m supposed to be nice and self-sacrificial. Perhaps I simply haven’t had enough opportunities to practice the delicate art of negotiation.
The bottom line is that I was simply scared to come to the negotiating table. But a fortuitous combination of classes and trainings have collided this semester, encouraging me to face my fears and approach negotiation with a more optimistic perspective. Thanks to Professor Earl Hill’s Negotiations elective course, Professor Peter Topping’s Goizueta Leadership Academy and executive coaching sessions with a few key mentors, I’m slowly learning to dispel some popular myths about conflict and negotiation.
Myth #1: Effective negotiators are aggressive
When I conjure up an image of a “good” negotiator, I tend to think of someone who is assertive, competitive and may even verge on being a bully. Since I’m naturally shy and reserved, I recognize that I need to be bolder; however, I doubt that I’ll ever be the intimidating presence in the room.
According to the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, there are five primary negotiating styles: avoiding, accommodating, compromising, collaborating and competing. Avoiders stay away from conflict. Accommodators neglect their own concerns to satisfy the concerns of others. Compromisers encourage both parties to give up something in order to reach an agreement. Collaborators work together with the other parties to come up with a mutually agreeable solution. Competitors pursue their own concerns at the expense of others.
Negotiations literature argues that each of these conflict styles can prove valuable depending on the circumstances. While competitors may best fit the stereotype of a good negotiator, their abrasiveness may risk damaging relationships. Collaboration is actually the most effective negotiating style, but the best negotiators know when to effectively use each conflict style.
Myth #2: Negotiation requires compromise
According to Getting to Yes: Negotiating Without Giving In by Roger Fisher and William Ury, the most common form of negotiation — positional bargaining — involves successively taking and then giving up a series of positions. For example, we’re ordering a pizza for dinner and I want vegetarian thin crust pizza and you want pepperoni thick crust pizza. After much back and forth debate and critique of food preferences, you concede about the crust and I concede about the toppings. We order a thin crust pepperoni pizza, each of us frustrated that we didn’t get exactly what we wanted.
Another form of negotiation is called principled negotiation. This strategy, developed by the Harvard Negotiation Project, focuses on creating mutual gains first, then decides on remaining conflicts by using fair independent standards. If we applied principled negotiation to the pizza scenario, then perhaps we would start with a conversation about what we really want for dinner. What I really wanted was to have at least one vegetable in my meal. What you really wanted was a quick, filling meal. Based on those factors, we could have ordered a pepperoni pizza with a side salad, or half pepperoni/half vegetarian, or any number of other options that would have satisfied all of our needs — no compromising required. But instead of taking the time to explore what would satisfy our core needs, we rushed into bickering about our positions.
Myth #3: Negotiating parties are in opposition to one another
Since negotiations are so commonly portrayed as argumentative, manipulative and/or combative, many people assume that there is always a winner and a loser in a negotiation. They fear that negotiation will ruin friendships.
In Professor Hill’s Negotiations course, we each have a negotiating partner with whom we negotiate throughout the semester. It just so happens that my partner Urmi is also one of my teammates in another class. Since I want to maintain a good working relationship with Urmi, I have a strong incentive to treat her with dignity. If I try to deceive or undermine Urmi in the short-term, my long-term relationship with her is at risk of being damaged. To effectively negotiate with Urmi, I must learn how to empathize with her perspective. To master negotiation, I must anticipate her moves before she even makes them and I must figure out how to find win-win situations that will accommodate both of our needs.
Now that I have a better understanding of what it really means to be a “good” negotiator, I enter into these situations with confidence. I might not be the most intimidating or aggressive personality in the room, and I might not nickel and dime the opposing parties. However, I certainly know how to communicate my needs, how to listen to and empathize with the needs of others, and how to maintain trusting relationships — and with time, I trust that these strategies will result in win-win agreements.