the road from “no” to “yes”

09/01/2013

by anne lueneburger

Difficult conversations

This shot isn’t from an art gallery. This photo was taken in Shanghai where I was on a coaching mandate this spring. I’m looking at graffiti on a wall just outside the ‘slum’ area at Xiaonanmen station. A minute ago I had been immersed in a world of dense housing with people cooking on gas stoves on the street and scrawny chickens darting across old rubble and waste. A turn around a corner and I was in a rich urban development populated by lofts and artificial beaches, and other hallmarks of a modern metropolis. The contrast of poverty and privilege was stark. The angry expression on this man’s face seemed to represent the tension that often exists between worlds that are so close and so yet so far apart.

Growing up, conflict in my family was characterized by what the French call “soup au lait” (if you have ever heated up milk on a stove, you will know that it can boil over quickly, but then recede just as rapidly the moment you remove the pot from its heat source). Arguments quickly got hot and loud, only to cool off the next moment and certainly be forgotten the following day. Without exception, I found these exchanges stressful. The power imbalance between parent and child often translated into positions of being in the “right” and “wrong” and gave me a sense of helplessness when it came to the final decision. Most frustrating was that there were rarely any takeaways that would result from these arguments. Life would go on and it was “business as usual” – it all seemed to be a waste of time. No surprise then that I entered adulthood with a less than positive attitude when it came to conflict, and a rather unrefined tool kit that was little use in helping me to navigate tension effectively.

Over two decades have passed since then and today I want to share some hard won lessons, be it through formal training or the classroom we call “life”, on how we can create win-win outcomes in conflict situations.

Lesson 1: Stop thinking in positions.

I found myself smiling as I looked at the angry man. Our perception of conflict influences how we take our first step forward. I am no longer captive to my childhood paradigm when it comes to conflict. While some of us are born gifted mediators, navigating conflict can be learned. From what I know today, conflict is neither good nor bad. It is also not about winners and losers.

con·flict  \kän-flikt\ : competitive or opposing action of incompatibles

ne·go·ti·a·tion  \ni-ˌgō-shē-ˈā-shən : to confer with another or others in order to come to terms or reach an agreement

To shift beyond a “fixed pie” mentality we need to explore how we can expand the pie and negotiate. While it may not be feasible to completely obtain our position, it is often possible to satisfy our interests.

In this light, consider what would be acceptable outcomes for you? (And suspend your judgment for a moment and rank them in order of preference…) Also, have a BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement) in place. What is your best course of action, should you and the other party not come to an agreement?

Lesson 2: Make it a choice.

 “Knowing when to fight is just as important as knowing how.”

– Terry Goodkind

While some may argue that avoiding any conflict is a lost opportunity, a good starting point is to gauge whether we really care or need to engage with the other party. Unless you thrive on the adrenaline rush that comes with conflict, the time and energy involved in negotiation and the effects of this, also needs to be weighed against the benefits. Here are the two questions to answer:

  • How important is this project to me?
  • How much do I value this relationship?

Sometimes it is simply better to walk away.

Lesson 3: Keep your shades clear.

Untitled

Negotiations are often full of the unexpected and the complex. If you are not being clear about your own values, beliefs, and emotional triggers, then the chances are your shades are dirty. If we are not checking whether our assumptions are true then we risk stumbling in the dark when it comes to influencing others.

As you are getting ready to enter a specific negotiation, here are three questions to clarify:

>What outcome am I looking to achieve?

>What are some of my main concerns, going in?

>What needs am I ultimately trying to meet?

Also take a moment to consider a time when you handled conflict well. Which of your strengths were particularly useful? Now think of a time when you did not manage conflict constructively. What were key emotional triggers that tend to trip you up in general? (Keep a list!) What needs are associated with these?

I often ask my coaching clients to sit the Intercultural Conflict Style Inventory to clarify their default negotiation style and to explore the characteristics of alternative styles they might find useful, depending on the context.

Lesson 4: Rehearse.

emperors-new-clothes

You may remember the Hans Christian Andersen parable, The Emperor’s New Clothes, where the emperor’s weavers claimed a new fabric was invisible to all who were “hopelessly stupid.” No one, not even his advisors, dared tell the Emperor that he was naked. One day, as the Emperor strolled through the village, one boy in the crowd shouted that the Emperor wore nothing.

Who in your crowd is willing to shout out and hold you accountableFor tough negotiations, get an objective perspective from someone you trust and who gives candid feedback. Consider roleplaying to gauge how good your influencing skills really are.

Lesson 5: Lead with warmth.

Many of my clients, in particular female execs, are reluctant to accommodate during negotiations: “I don’t want to be the doormat” is a frequent pushback I receive as a coach. However, research confirms: leading with warmth as we aspire to influence others facilitates trust as it communicates that we are attentive to their needs. According to Gallup we are five times more likely to follow the lead of someone we trust.

Warmth expresses itself not only in what we say but also in how we say it. Vision is – hands down – our leading sense, taking up half of our brain’s resources. It is not surprising then, that body language steers how other people think and feel about us, and also how we feel about ourselves as there is a feedback loop: try smiling for a couple of minutes and your brain will increase its serotonin production, which is responsible for feelings of happiness.

Suggest a time for your discussion that accommodates the other party’s schedule. Consider using a more welcoming space in or outside the office. A 2010 study by MIT and Yale brain researchers confirms: offer the other party a comfortable chair and a coffee and they will be more flexible in their demands.

Add competence and a projection of strength to the mix and you become a “happy warrior.”

Lesson 6: Listen. Carefully.

Start any negotiation by inquiring about the other party’s perspective first. Rather than delivering your version of the story and risking a defensive reaction, you are getting a general sense as to where they are coming from.  Also, they are more likely to listen to you when it’s your turn. Questions you may ask are:

listening

>What is their goal or desired outcome?

>How important is this goal to them?

>What relationships play key roles here?

>What are they most concerned about?

>What are some of the influencing factors we might not be aware of?

>What are their specific needs and what outcomes would address those?

Some of this will be hard to listen to and not react. Remember that listening and looking for a place of mutual understanding does not mean you are in agreement with the other person. This is a tough test for your listening skills. Powerful listening means you don’t go into your own head. You fully concentrate on what the other person is saying – as well as to what they are not saying… Observing their body language, facial expression, and tone of voice can give good clues as to what they may care most about.

Bonus Tip1: As you are listening, in addition to an open body language (Lesson 5), send verbal signals of acknowledgment such as “Ok, go on”, “uh huh” or “tell me more”.

Bonus Tip 2: Make sure you get all the broken pieces on the table at once before you begin trying to “glue it back together”.

Lesson 7: Meet them where they are.

empathy

Ever heard the saying “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”? As you are listening, show empathy where appropriate. “I can imagine that this must have been hard/difficult/frustrating…” Dance in the moment, step to their side and let go of trying to control their reaction: you can’t. If you hear common ground, be sure to mention it, “It is clear that this is frustrating for both of us. So, moving forward, what is important to you now?”

Paraphrasing involves restating what was just said using other words. It lets the other party know they have been heard. You validate their concerns. As you summarize milestones, do NOT say “What you are trying to say is…” but rather start with “So if I understand you correctly…”, “In other words, what you are saying is…”, “Let me make sure I got this right…”, or “Do you mean that…?”

Paraphrasing can also serve as an opener to probe for more information: “Can I ask a couple of questions?” Once you have listened to the other person, you have won yourself a hearing to assert your own needs.

Lesson 8: Stay calm…and carry on.

keep calm

It is particularly tough to manage emotional triggers when time constraints are factored into the equation.  In response to requests such as “I need it now!” consider asking “What is important about having it now?” (And if it’s you who puts on the pressure, ask yourself the same question). This might allow you to address an underlying need differently.

Also, if you are someone who needs time to reflect before making a decision, buy additional time. Play back the conversation until now: “To make sure I get what you are saying…” or, “Hold on, let me make sure I get this right, can we back up for a minute and review how we got here….” You may also ask “to enlist third party counsel or check in with the other parties who are involved” prior to making a decision.

If you’re tempted to blow up in the face of antagonism, pause for a moment before you respond: count to three, take a couple of deep breaths. Or take a break, step out into the corridor, go for a walk and remove yourself from the psychological pressure in the room. Imagine it’s five years from now: what do you think you will have learned from this conflict? How will you feel about how you handled it? What advice will the ‘older you’ tell the ‘younger you’ that is experiencing the challenge?

At all times, what helps you control your initial reaction is to keep your eyes on the prize: what is it that you really want as an outcome?

Tip: Ask yourself, before saying something:  “Is it kind, is it relevant, is it true?” If the answer is “no” for any of these, bite your lip and choose words that meet all of these criteria.

Lesson 9: State your case. Tactfully.

Now it is time to share your perspective. Your goal is for people to understand your view without making them defensive. The more you can bring their filters down, the more likely are they willing and able to hear you.

Own what is yours. Apologize for any wrongdoing on your part first. And where there is room for doubt, consider stating it in a more ambiguous fashion, such as “The information I got was that our client proposal came out as scheduled. I’ll have to take a closer look into this.”

Be specific about what you need. Rather than playing the risky game of having others guess as to what we want, be direct and as succinct as you can. For example, “I need for you to say what the priorities for this project are.”

Attack the problem. Not the person. If the goal is to fix the problem, pointing fingers will cause the other party to check out and become defense. One way to overcome this temptation is to focus on the future.

Lesson 10: Brainstorm & Agree on “what’s next”.

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

You understand what the other party’s needs are (in addition to your own). You have identified common ground. Now you are ready to develop acceptable solutions. Select those options that will work for both of you. “Reality-test” them, using criteria of fairness and reciprocity, to ensure that needs are met on both sides. Mention their needs first, use the “we” as well as the “and” perspective as you are asserting your own needs:

>“If we move forward with this option, how can we make sure it addresses your need for abc and my need for xyz?”

>“I know this is important to the two of us. You do need abc and I need xyz. What are options that get us there?”

>“What I heard you say is…and from my point of view what I need is…, how can this option meet these criteria?”

If you are in a genuine deadlock, explore openly the costs of no agreement with the other party, holding up the mirror on what is at stake for the two of you. As a last resort you may choose to let the other party know that you have a BATNA: “I have other ideas on how to resolve this, however, my hope is that we resolve this together.” This tactic works best if all alternatives were not accepted. Never to be used as a threat but used as another piece of information.

Lesson +1: Celebrate agreement. Write it up.

Summarizing the main points of an agreement helps avoid future misunderstandings and sets standards of accountability. Sometimes a simple email to all participants can do the job. Be sure to mention how and by when the solution will be implemented as well as any milestones and metrics.

Now go, and have fun “arguing!”

P. S. Some reads you may want to check out:

  • Cuddy, A., Kohut, M., and Nelfinger, J. (July-August 2013).“Is it better to be loved or feared?” Harvard Business Review.
  • Stone, D., Patton, B., Heen, S. and Fisher, R. (2010). “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most.” New York, NY: Penguin.
  • Kolb, D.M., Williams, J. (2003). “Everyday Negotiation: Navigating the Hidden Agendas in Bargaining.” San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Medina, J.(2008). “Brain rules”
  • Ury, W.(1993). “Getting Past No.” New York, NY: Bantam Dell.
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