A New Way to Look at Negotiation

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By Jan Potgieter

Contrary to common assumptions, negotiation is so much more than conflict resolution; and to get the most from your negotiations you have to both understand human nature and then harness it to deliver the results you are seeking from your negotiations.

Most people understand negotiation to be something international diplomats, executives, sales managers or professional buyers do; a chess match between rivals that one will win, and one will lose. They might think of it as an isolated step in the process of sales or buying, and when it does happen, it’s seen as an event infrequent at best rather than an ongoing process.

The truth is very different. The Latin root of the word negotiation, negotiatus, literally means “to carry on business.” From that origin, you can see that negotiation encompasses every part of your business interactions, including management, sales, legal, marketing, purchasing, and even human resources.

Even seasoned leaders and executives fall into the trap of thinking that negotiation is something that only takes place when it comes to the time to agree on a price or sign a contract.

Missing Out On The Bigger Picture

As the conventional understanding of negotiation is becoming narrower and more marginalised, we see organisations of all sizes relegating negotiation to an activity confined to the sales team. The notion that any act of doing business, or indeed anything that is not leisure, is a form of negotiation has been clouded over by our need to make sense of the highly complex nature of the large organisations that are so typical of the modern world.

Even seasoned leaders and executives fall into the trap of thinking that negotiation is something that only takes place when it comes to the time to agree on a price or sign a contract. The opportunities missed to both create and claim value through negotiation in the larger sense are profound.

Like most executives and managers, you have probably made two key mistakes:

1. Event Mindset: You’ve been focused on upcoming negotiations as events. you’ve been thinking almost exclusively about how you will present your case during the formal meetings when exploring potential transactions, alliances, and partnerships.

2. Failure To Measure: You have not been measuring your own performance and/or your team’s success at negotiating. How can you improve the way that you negotiate if you have no idea how you stack up against best and leading practices? As famously stated by W. Edwards Deming, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.”

This leads to a pivotal question.

Do you think of yourself as a professional negotiator?

Your answer to this question will go a long way to shaping both your expectations and results.

My definition of a professional negotiator (according to the Latin root of the word) is “anyone who is in any way involved in doing business, or for that matter, anything outside of their leisure time.” Does that cover what you do?

The professional negotiation community is made up of those who negotiate to do business, plain and simple. Transactions are negotiated between people and between organisations daily. Agreements are negotiated within organisations internally by the hour, during every meeting, and even in every conversation that takes place between colleagues and business partners. Wherever these two activities take place you will find professional business negotiators in action!

Although you may not consider yourself to be a professional negotiator, the fact is that you should be one. Most of those in the corporate world don’t even realise they are negotiating all day, every day.

How does that understanding change the game for you? If you were consciously aware that almost every interaction with your colleagues and counterparts represented a negotiation opportunity, would you be convinced to apply negotiation best practices to ensure that you get the best possible results?

Are you starting to see the opportunity for competitive differentiation?

It’s Not What You Might Be Thinking

One of the things that surprises me about the negotiation training industry is that so many negotiation trainers advocate that almost all negotiations are similar, and that the point of departure is the assumption that there is some kind of conflict present between the respective positions assumed by the parties.

This kickstarts the negotiation preparation process off on an entirely negative footing.

What you focus on in life is what you’ll get more of, and if your basic assumption is that negotiation is centered on resolving conflict (rather than the action of simply doing business), then I suspect that you will find your life rather full of conflict.

Suggesting that all negotiations are the same is like saying that all sports are the same. Following that logic, a great competitive sailor is also a great marathon runner. While you certainly will share many characteristics with other athletes – eating healthily, thinking competitively, displaying a high degree of training discipline –your particular code of sport will require you to master vastly different techniques and tactics in order for you to be successful.

It is no different in the world of doing business. As a successful and professional business negotiator, you will share many of the characteristics of successful negotiators in areas like conflict resolution or hostage negotiations, but you will also need to master many business-specific negotiation strategies, tactics, and techniques.

All Change, No Change?

If you have been in the business world for any length of time, you have likely observed that our collective culture has completely transformed from what was the norm as little as fifty years ago:

• We work more on our own and less in task-driven, collegial, industrial settings.
We obtain and consume food in ways that might have confused our parents and grandparents.
• Our populations are congregating in urban centres more than at any time in history.
• We spend our leisure time in ways that would have been unfamiliar to previous generations.
We structure organisations and governments more democratically than ever before.
We interact with others using communication platforms almost unrecognisable from the way the world operated even as recently as 2000.

By contrast, the way that negotiation skills development has been taught has largely remained unchanged. So much has changed in how we communicate (using email, phones, social media and video conferencing in addition to face to face meetings) and with whom we communicate (people from all over the world rather than only people from our own cultural background), that it has rendered obsolete much of what has been traditionally taught in the negotiation classroom.

So much of what was advocated as negotiation best practice was (and still is) founded on a flawed, linear assumption that largely discounts human nature, and revolves around a mono-cultural mode of interaction rooted in a North American, British, or European perspective.

You see, while the world is changing around us due to the runaway train of globalisation, anthropologists and psychologists largely agree that human nature itself has not changed much over thousands of years.

Against this backdrop, I find it astonishing that so much of what continues to be taught by many apparent ‘negotiation experts’ has its roots in:

• Research conducted mainly among groups of undergraduate students
• The specific context of conflict resolution scenarios (e.g., labor relations, peace treaties, big corporate disasters, etc.).

Let me clarify: while there is useful learning to be gleaned from the research studies done by the academic institutions, the premise for that research is too narrow and, to a large extent, discounts the lowest common denominator that ties people together. This research has largely ignored human nature and has narrowed the focus of what is deemed to be ‘negotiation’ to such a niche definition that it mostly revolves around finding ways to reach an agreement around a set of so-called ‘conflicting interests’.

So Much More Than Conflict Resolution

Don’t get me wrong, there often will be a conflict of interests present between parties to a negotiation. But to start with the assumption that negotiation is only a means of conflict resolution or closing formal transactions is to completely ignore the original roots of the word (negotiatus: to do business), and creates an expectation that does not best serve the objective of reaching lasting and mutually-beneficial agreements.

I like how Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines the term ‘human nature’: “The ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that are common to most people and the nature of humans; especially: the fundamental dispositions and traits of humans.”

If we can agree that human nature is common to all humans and that (for the moment, at least) we negotiate with humans, then why would we choose to put the focus of negotiation on finding solutions to conflicting interests, when the reality is that, at a root level, we all share the same set of interests?

Wouldn’t it make more sense to tap into that which is shared and common amongst all people and peoples irrespective of gender, culture, or age to move toward reaching an agreement?

A Novel Approach

To get the most from your negotiations, you have to both understand and harness human nature to achieve the results you are seeking from your negotiations.

If you can understand the opportunities offered by human nature for optimising your negotiation results, you will be able to apply fantastically powerful negotiation strategies, techniques, and tactics across cultures (the last time I checked all cultures were made up of humans), over all forms of communication, and across gender and generation gaps. You will be surprised at how easily you will be able to move your own approach to negotiation from one of default, to one of design.

Approaching negotiation by design rather than by default will forever change the results you will achieve from your interactions with others. A simple fact of life is that your results in business and in relationships are a direct reflection of your ability to negotiate and connect with people. Yet, most people lack skills in handling relationships with co-workers, clients, vendors and other stakeholders.

What would you say are the biggest causes of stress, frustration, and problems in your life? Could it be relationships with people, money, and health (or some combination of these)?

Almost all of our frustrations and anxieties in life stem from one of these three areas. While money and health problems are outside the scope of this article, it’s my guess that dealing with people is one of the biggest, if not the biggest challenge in your life. If so, you’re not alone. This is true in the lives of everyone I know.

Isn’t it interesting that, even though these three areas are at the root of almost all of the challenges we face in life, little time is spent on developing our skills in any of these areas during our formal education years.

By the time you add up the years spent in grade school, high school, college, and on the job, most people will have participated in anywhere from twelve to twenty years in formal education, without having spent a single day learning about people!

No wonder, then, that the negotiation results obtained by business people across the world are so consistently mediocre. What little skill they have typically revolves around finding manipulative means to get their own way.

There is a profound opportunity awaiting negotiators who will equip themselves with the tools to approach their negotiations by design rather than just reacting by default to the negotiation scenarios that play out around them every day.

The complexity that has been added to our world because of globalisation and the rapid improvement of communication technologies (our connectedness) mean that those who understand and apply the best practices (and indeed the leading practices that support negotiating in a business context) will get an unfair share of the spoils that are up for grabs.

Becoming aware that you are constantly negotiating will increase your earnings, enhance your relationships, reduce conflict, and maximise your time. As you learn to communicate accurately and convincingly, you will reduce the time you sacrifice on the altar of miscommunication, which inevitably leads to escalation, delays, frustrations, and frayed tempers.

About Imperium
Imperium Global Negotiations was established against this backdrop to equip leading organisations and individuals with the cutting edge strategies, tactics, techniques and supporting tools to maximise the outcome of every single negotiation opportunity. The Executive Team is led by Jan Potgieter and he is supported by a team of global negotiation experts totally dedicated to business negotiation excellence.

About the Author

Jan Potgieter is the Managing Director of Imperium Global Negotiation Solutions. Jan has significant experience in high value, cross-industry and cross-cultural negotiations gained on assignment with leading global organisations including Vodafone, Telefonica, Pfizer, IBM, Adidas, Nokia, Macquaire Bank, RBS, Network Rail, TRL, The NHS, Schlumberger, Motorola, Altana AG, The Hilton Group and many others. 


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