Positive Progress and the Art of Negotiation

How much time and attention do you spend negotiating every day?

Think about it: just getting to your work space requires negotiating activities, meals, and space (think nutrition versus convenience, after-school activities, commuter lanes, etc.) At work we negotiate our way through business deals, customer relations, office politics, and career advancements. Such negotiations often require the agility of Captain America, the stamina of Dean Karnazes, and the wisdom of Yoda.

Ask any experienced parent (or listen to the news) and you’ll hear how playing hardball with threats and bluffs simply does not yield positive progress. However, traditional wisdom that points to a win-win strategic formula of trades and compromises is not without challenges. Of course, most of us are not super-heroes or world class athletes. Positive progress requires mastery in the art of negotiation.

What is the Art of Negotiation?

Negotiation is the process of agreement that takes place between individuals or organizations autonomously (by algorithms or machines) or human interaction (verbal or written dialogue). Generally, the objective is to identify common interests and resolve opposing differences. But as authors Michael Wheeler and Jeff Cummings write in The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World, “agility is the mark of a master negotiator. Yes, preparation is important, but negotiation is a two-way street.”

Negotiations often break down when people focus on their positions, rather than on legitimate interests. The resulting polarization squelches curiosity, creativity, and compassion. This is often seen in positional bargaining, where egos are hooked, relationships become strained, and neither party is satisfied.

For example, you want your children to eat something healthy for breakfast. You offer an orange, a cup of unsweetened steel-cut oats, and a cup of unsweetened almond milk. They counter that they want sweetened cereal and a glass of sweetened juice. You then drop your offer to half-an orange, three bites of the oats, and no less. One of your children counters with two orange sections. This exchange goes on until you meet in the middle.

The problem with this tactic is that the legitimate interests are not addressed, rather, both parties focus on their position and the compromise does not take into account the needs of either party.

What’s Your Negotiation Style?

Most people have a default negotiation style. Two of the most common are hard-bargaining and win-win.

The underlying motivation in the hard-bargaining style is based on a competitive, zero-sum game, that is to say, if one gains, the other loses. With this style of positional bargaining, there is a winner and a loser of limited resources.

In the win-win style, both parties seek to understand underlying interests and values of the other party. This gentler style is common with friends, family, and those who value relationships. Of course, a hard-bargaining, “muscle, might, or deception” style will dominate a gentler style, and ultimately result in a loss for both parties. Alternatively, a principled negotiation style supports both parties equally.

When both parties seek to meet the legitimate, basic interests of both parties using fair standards, mutually satisfying options are identified and result in a sound agreement. Positions, personalities, and egos are separated from the problem or conflict. Mutual respect is demonstrated with direct, honest, and empathetic communication.

The Art of Principled Negotiation

It’s not easy to change habits and disentangle emotions when negotiating. It may be difficult at first to enlist others in the task of working out a wise solution to a shared problem. Your first goal is to find a better way to negotiate.

In the best-selling book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton outline four elements of principled negotiation:

  1. People: Separate the people from the problem.
  2. Interests: Focus on interests, not positions.
  3. Options: Generate a variety of possibilities before deciding what to do.
  4. Criteria: Insist on a result based on an objective standard.

These four elements require skills in analysis, planning, and discussion.

Analysis: Gather and organize information. Identify the outcome (basic need or want) you wish to achieve. Identify the desired outcome for the other party.

For example, if you are negotiating breakfast with your children, you’ll need to specify exactly what you believe to be indicators of nutrition or health. Is it consistent energy until lunch? You may want your children to eat only unprocessed, unsweetened foods, but their nutritional needs may be met with a balance of unprocessed, minimally processed, and naturally sweetened foods. You also need to know what each child wants. Is it something quick, easy, and sweet? This broader perspective differs from trying to convince both children to eat an orange, a cup of unsweetened steel-cut oats, and a cup of unsweetened almond milk. The focus is on outcomes—not positions or specific foods.

In principled negotiations, you’ll want to consider any people problems, partisan perceptions, and unclear communications as you identify others’ needs. Note the options already on the table (i.e., oranges, steel-cut oats, almond milk, sweetened cereal, sweetened juice), and identify any criteria already suggested as a basis for agreement (taste/pleasure, nutritional value, speed/ease, etc.)

Planning: Only after you have thoroughly analyzed legitimate needs, wants, and desired outcomes, generate ideas and decide what to do. Consider these questions:

  1. When people problems arise, how will they be managed?
  2. What are your most important interests (needs, wants)?
  3. What are some realistic objectives?
  4. What are some additional options?
  5. What criteria will be used in decision making?

Discussion:  This is an opportunity to practice curiosity without judgement. Through two-sided, open dialog, both parties explore differences in perception, feelings of frustration and anger, and other factors. Remember to examine all four of the elements: people, interests, options, and criteria. Each side should come to understand the other’s interests. Both can then jointly generate options that are mutually advantageous and seek agreement on objective standards for resolving opposition.

Using our breakfast example, one child may want to skip the meal entirely, while the other wants something sweet. Negotiating a compromise requires family members to examine options that satisfy the group. Ultimately, you may need to create two separate agreements.

This method of reaching agreement considers all parties’ interests and allows you to reach a joint decision without the high costs of positional bargaining.

But what happens when positive progress fails?

When Negotiations Stall

Negotiating is about coping with complexity. To succeed, negotiators must be prepared, but more importantly, they must be prepared to cope with rapid change and mistakes. Agility and curiosity is the best approach.

We often act out of habit, without question. To be sure, it’s difficult to admit our common human condition of thinking we know more than we do. The ego protects itself by gravitating toward feelings of certainty. In that state of mind we’re unlikely to ask questions.

Instead, practice being a good questioner. Recognize your own feelings of discomfort or self-consciousness with not knowing. Ask naïve questions. A beginner’s mind is open to all possibilities while an expert’s is not.

When people do ask questions, they’re often relying on assumptions and biases. Even if you don’t yet know "how," it’s important to ask "why" and "what if" questions. And remember to listen well.

Negotiation is the exploration of the scope of the issues, the best means for resolution, and the nature of your relationship with counterparts. When negotiations stall, you might just need to go back to the exploration stage.

When Negotiations Fail

Negotiations often fail when we cut corners, rush to solutions, and accept proposed solutions—even when our best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA) would have been better. Similarly, failure also occurs when a solution can’t be implemented.

Remember our breakfast example? If you had reached a point of exasperation and said to your children, “eat what I made, or go hungry,” a stalemate would likely ensue. And it’s really no surprise.

According to the Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation, negotiations fail when strong emotions come in to play. Instead of objectively discussing a proposed solution, comparing it to your BATNA, and making a rational choice, threats are issued.

While some critics argue that a BATNA encourages positional bargaining, others point to the objectivity and assurance an alternative provides. A well thought out BATNA, or estimated alternatives to a negotiated agreement (EATNA), increases your confidence, identifies your alternatives, and helps you to recognize subpar and best solutions.

The art of negotiation requires preparation and agility. With practice, you’ll see positive progress while maintaining positive relationships during the process.

Leadership Development and the Art of Listening

What do Douglas Baker Jr., CEO of Ecolab, Fred Rogers (Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood), and former US President Barack Obama have in common?

Doug Baker became CEO of Ecolab in 2004. At the time, the 80+year old company was selling industrial cleansers and food safety services to the tune of $3.8 billion annual revenue, with 10% annual growth. In 2011, Baker transformed the company which resulted in $12 billion annual revenue.

Fred Rogers, aka Mr. Rogers, cared deeply about those on the other side of the television screen—their needs, concerns, struggles and joys. He was an advocate for children, public television, and a voice for the unheard.

Barack Obama served as the 44th President of the United States from 2009 to 2019. Prior to that, he served as a US senator, a state senator, worked as a civil rights attorney, law professor, and community organizer for low-income residents. In a recent conversation at the Obama Foundation Leaders: Asia-Pacific program he spoke about his experiences and values-based leadership.

So what do these three leaders have in common? They point to listening as the key to forward progress.  After listening to clients, Baker refocused their efforts to help save the planet and attained 133% of their projected growth. Rogers listened to children, changed the face of television, and transformed the lives of young children. Obama spent countless hours listening to others, inspiring trust, pulling people together, and improving innumerable lives.

Although the art of listening is frequently the difference between leadership success and failure, it is often taken for granted, and rarely taught in schools—at any level. We have an urgent need for leadership development in the art of listening.

How Well are You Listening?

Listening well has been found to distinguish the best managers, teachers, and leaders.” ~ Psychologist Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships (Bantam, 2007)

The art of listening is essential for leaders. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that we spend 22% of our time reading communications, 23% talking to others, and 55% listening. But how well are we hearing?

Test yourself with this simple exercise, suggested by Marshall Goldsmith in What Got You Here Won’t Get You There (Hachette Books, 2007): Close your eyes. Slowly count to 50 with a concentrated focus on counting only; don’t let any other thought enter your brain.

Most people admit that after counting to 20 or 30 they become distracted. (Some maintain the count, but are also thinking of other things.) While this may sound like a concentration test, it’s actually a listening assessment. After all, if you can’t listen to your own voice as you count, how can you listen to someone else?

Practice this listening exercise. Track your progress. By sharpening your ability to focus on your own voice, you’ll find that you are better able to focus attention on another.

Why We Aren’t Listening

Mastering the art of listening is beneficial to everyone. It allows leaders to identify opportunities, innovate, and increase profitability. It strengthens relationships, builds better teams, and bridges gaps. So why aren’t we listening?

The human brain is a remarkable, complex system with enormous power to process information through electrical signals. Like a computer (or artificial intelligence), it has circuits for input, output, central processing (CPUs), and memory. The human brain also uses parallel processing, and, according to Liqun Luo, professor of neurobiology at Stanford University, has “superior flexibility, generalizability, and learning capability than the state-of-the-art computer.” 

On average, the human brain thinks at 500 words per minute (Wpm). However, we only speak at an average of 130 Wpm. This frees up a lot of CPUs when we are listening, and we begin to multi-task.

Emotional distractions also create a lack of presence and inability to listen. These include:

  • Impatience
  • Resentment and envy
  • Fear and feeling threatened
  • Fatigue and frustration
  • Overexcitement (happiness, joy, attraction)
  • Insecurities and/or a need to be “right”

When we think we already know what someone is going to say, we often stop listening, and begin crafting a solution and response. When this happens, we move away from a place of curiosity, a keystone of listening.

Similarly, our limited perspective can interfere with our listening. When we think we know what someone is going to say, or hear something that contradicts what we think or feel, we stop listening. We fail to acknowledge that we don’t know what we don’t know. We hold on to bias, beliefs, and pre-conceived notions.

Often times, leaders who struggle in the art of listening are simply struggling with their own perceived inability to act on suggestions and ideas. As a result, they shut down the flow of ideas and requests, and move to a defensive position where they do all the talking. Sure, they may empathize (and emphasize) how much they care, but they are not listening.

What is the Art of Listening?

As counter-intuitive as it may appear, the art of listening actually begins with self-awareness. Self-aware people understand what motivates them and their decision-making. They recognize their feelings (as they happen) and how they affect their thoughts. They understand their strengths and weaknesses. Self-aware people understand their proclivity to bias and blindspots.

How? In an HBR article, Anthony K. Tjan writes that the trinity of self-awareness is to, “know thyself, improve thyself, and complement thyself.” Self- aware leaders are active truth-seekers who commit to intellectual honesty and surround themselves with different types of people who understand and complement each other. Individually and collectively, they develop social intelligence.

Honing the skills of awareness requires mindfulness—becoming aware of what’s going on inside and around you on several levels. In its simplest form, mindful meditation is an intentional awareness of being, focusing on the breath. If, or rather, when a thought occurs, the person simply acknowledges the thought without judgement, and returns to a focus on the breath. The practice leads to living in a state of full, conscious awareness of one’s whole self, of other people, and the context in which we live and work. It provides a framework for social awareness.

According to Goleman, social awareness is a spectrum that runs from instantaneously sensing another’s inner state, to understanding their feelings and thoughts, and to “getting” complicated socials situations. Goleman describes it as:

  • “Primal empathy: Feeling with others; sensing non-verbal emotional signals.
  • Attunement: Listening with full receptivity; attuning to a person.
  • Empathic accuracy: Understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions.
  • Social cognition: Knowing how the social world works.”

Whether they agree or disagree with what they are hearing, reading, or seeing, leaders who excel in the art of listening are fully receptive to the person communicating. They use active listening to signal their attunement. Self-aware listeners facilitate rapport with full, sustained presence, going beyond momentary empathy, similar to what they practice in mindfulness.

How Leaders Can Listen Better

Humans learn to sift and sort at any early age. We learn coping methods to drown out distracting movements and sounds. In the process, we often develop the habit of selective listening. As a result, we often miss important cues, or even direct communication. While the art of listening is not taught in traditional MBA programs, leaders can learn to listen better by taking a few tips from the training therapists receive.

Be curious. Curiosity allows us to think more deeply, rationally, and innovatively. Curious leaders gain more trust and respect, and are better able to adapt in uncertain conditions and external pressures. As a leader, how do you strengthen your curiosity? How often do you:

  • Read a wide range of topics, genres, and authors
  • Consult with others
  • Explore without an agenda—i.e. take a trip, a walk, a visit to brick and mortar book store
  • Ask “dumb” questions
  • Learn something new—i.e. memorize new facts, learn a new game/language/musical instrument
  • Deepen your existing knowledge and expertise
  • Ponder the unknowable

Practice active listening. As a leader, one of the most important things we do for those we lead is to listen. And while we may think we’re paying full attention, we may be sending a message that we’re not. Instead, practice active listening without judgement:

  • Stop what you are doing. This is perhaps the most important, and loudest signal you can give to the other person. If you are walking, stop. Turn to face the other person squarely. If you are seated and holding something, put it down, and if possible, away from your reach, and face the other person squarely. If you are not able to fully participate, or have limited time and attention, let them know, and, schedule a time and place when you can.
  • As the other person is speaking, pay attention to their non-verbal language—their tone, body language, and gestures—as well as the details of what they are saying. As appropriate, mirror their actions (make eye contact, smile, lean in, relax your face, etc.).
  • Ask for clarification, or elaboration, without interrupting them as they speak. To do this well, without manipulating the conversation with your own bias, agenda, preconceptions, or motives, takes practice. Allow for silence as someone searches for words or composure by maintaining eye contact and using appropriate facial expressions. Ask open-ended questions that can not be answered with “yes” or “no”. If you do need specific clarification, ask close-ended questions.
  • Paraphrase what you think you heard, verbally and non-verbally. Include what you perceive to be their feelings, emotions, beliefs, thoughts, suggestions, ideas, requests, etc. Include details, as well as the big picture. Acknowledge what you don’t understand, or know.
  • Don’t rush to solutions, or fixes. Be patient, but not passive. And remember, the goal is not to critique what they say, rather, it is simply to hear and understand. Resist any urge to empathize by topping the story with your own similar, but worse, experience.
  • Communicate what your next step or follow-up will be.

Establish guidelines for team and group meetings. The art of listening is critical for team success. Leaders who remove barriers, set standards, and model behavior increase meeting efficiencies and productivity.

  • Request that distractions be minimized or eliminated (i.e. cell phones off, doors closed, etc.).
  • State your objective at the beginning of the meeting.
  • Appoint a facilitator to keep track of time and focus.
  • Appoint a note-taker to paraphrase and track main points, assignments, deadlines, status, and next-steps.
  • Encourage everyone to face the speaker as much as possible (turn chairs in the appropriate direction.)
  • When ideas are presented, resist the urge to interrupt or critique, and encourage the same behavior from everyone.
  • Discourage side conversations. Ask participants to have their conversation at another time.
  • Take your own notes of what the speaker is saying.

Model the art of listening with self-awareness, attentiveness to the speaker, and listening to understand.

Signs of a Poor Listener

People who are poor listeners are generally not difficult to spot. They are often easily distracted, fail to focus on the present, offer plenty of free advice, minimize the feelings of others, and are quick to fill any silence with their own ideas.

Colleagues, co-workers, and even clients label poor listeners. Have you seen these types in the workplace?

  • Headhunter listener: this type of listener is looking to identify others in their tribe; that is to say, if your ideas align with theirs, or what they believe is “the truth.” While they may have good intentions, they are frequently looking for ways to restate their position, rather than listen.
  • Negator:  this type of listener believes everyone else is wrong. They create barriers, often hiding behind closed doors, lack of time, and other priorities. Resentful of others for their attempt at intrusion, they negate all ideas.  
  • Manipulator: perhaps the most cunning of poor listeners is the manipulator, who skillfully steers conversations to their desired outcome. Their questions are leading, slanted, or rhetorical, leaving others to wonder what just happened.
  • Phila-buster: this type of listener is also known as a wind-bag. Any thinking they do is done externally, or outloud, and they use repetition or gas-lighting to try and prove their point.
  • Fixer: the fixer listener is a people-pleaser, quick on the draw to offer solutions. They seek to impress, and often make recommendations before assistance is sought, or problems are fully identified.
  • Faker: this type of listener is a great actor, who often uses pseudo-empathy to mask their disinterest or closed-mind.

When co-workers don’t listen at work, it can often feel like bad improv comedy. Collaboration becomes impossible when conversations are one-sided. Unfortunately, the stakes are often much greater, and the consequences far more reaching.

How Teams Can Listen Better with Improv

Individuals and teams can practice the art of listening with a few techniques from improv comedy. The game is called Questions Only, where participants are challenged to move the dialog forward without hesitation, statements, or non-sequiturs, asking original questions only. Some versions of the game use scoring, but typically it is done with a group of four (or more), and when a mistake is made, another person steps in. The key to staying in the game is to listen well.

Poor listeners rarely move a dialog forward. Instead, they miss cues and opportunities. But great listeners focus on others, remain flexible, and listen carefully. They collaborate and support each other.

Listening well will help you strengthen relationships, increase your knowledge, make better decisions, and improve your creativity. It can make all the difference in your success. How are your skills in the art of listening?