How to Listen Productively in a Negotiation

The task of negotiating with other people is part and parcel of business-life. However, many hate having to do so, and a large percentage do so ineffectively. One cause is that most focus on the quality of their speaking, fixating on what they need to say. By contrast, masterful negotiators take a different approach: deep listening.

Years ago, I had the fortune of picking up “Getting to Yes” by Roger Fisher and William Ury. This classic book on negotiations outlines several principles; one of which is to listen keenly to uncover the true intent behind someone’s position.

The idea is simple enough: when people are in a negotiation, the job of making requests of their counterparts is unavoidable. On the surface, it seems to be a battle of wills: each side asks for what it wants repeatedly, until the other concedes or refuses. The best tactic is to figure out how to get what you want, while giving away as little as possible.

However, Fisher and Ury advocate a different frame: a “Win-Win” in which both parties benefit. As you may imagine, there are a number of positives to be derived from this approach, even though it requires more skill. Among them is the ability to listen powerfully to what the other party is not saying aloud.

The fact is, each of us asks for stuff we want all day. However, especially when the stakes are high and emotions are raw, we unwittingly hide our true needs and emotional wants behind words. It simply feels too risky to be honest.

But we aren’t being sneaky; it’s just that emotional intent doesn’t translate neatly into actions or objects. For example, a husband who asks his wife to make a cheesecake for his birthday isn’t necessarily asking her to procure a baked good, and may be upset when she purchases one from a store.

For him, the intent is to experience her love and care which means seeing her sacrifice time and attention in the kitchen making the cake from scratch. He may unwittingly want to relive a memory provided by his mother.

But his actual words: “Would you bake a cheesecake for my birthday?” don’t convey his entire intent. Therefore, the mismatch between the two could result in a marital spat, or in the business world, a failed negotiation. How can you get past this sticking point if you find yourself in a similar spot?

1. Notice the mismatch

Skilled negotiators know how to use their intuition to discern such subtle gaps. Something deep inside them indicates that all is not well. However, you may find that your MBA-like training leads you to pay attention to the logic of what is happening: the discernible facts.

But that’s not enough. Furthermore, detecting uneasy feelings is necessary, but not sufficient. Once the inner shift is realized, you must translate the sensation into accurate words.

“It seems that we are making progress, but something inside tells me that we are missing a big part.”

This is a bold step: it’s a request to stop the negotiation in order to investigate a mere hunch based on intangible emotions. Unfortunately, most people self-censor, telling themselves: “Don’t be silly – just move on!” When they do so, everyone loses.

If you’d like to move past sticking points in your difficult conversations, it pays to tune in to your inner feelings, and speak up.

2. Probing for Underlying Commitments

If you do call a time-out, and things seem stuck, it could be that you are giving the other party exactly what they are asking for…but it’s not enough. This is a moment when your intuition can help you probe for deeper reasons.

“I know you asked for cheesecake, but why do you want that for your birthday?”

This is a masterful move in any negotiation because you are probing behind the stated position to see why it was raised in the first place. But this is more than curiosity.

Going deeper opens up the range of possible solutions. For example, the smell of home-cooked cake on a special day could be satisfied by other kinds of baked goods which are easier or less expensive to make.

When you expand the number of options, a Win-Win becomes far more likely. Plus, when you probe their hidden commitments it shows that you care. It’s as if you are setting aside the overt demand for cheesecake in order to give the other person what they really want.

In this context, this kind of listening is powerful as it invents brand new outcomes which neither side could predict beforehand. Without explicitly saying so, the two opposing sides are now working as a team.

For a breakthrough in negotiations, start by deeply listening beyond the words to yourself, and the other person’s true needs.

This article first appeared in the Jamaica Gleaner –

How to Inspire “Paused” Employees

As a result of the pandemic and the recession, are many of your staff-members unconsciously “working-to-rule”? In other words, have they reverted to doing the minimum possible to keep their jobs? If so, what can you as an employer do to break them out of a dangerous rut which could drive your firm all the way into bankruptcy?

These are scary times, and with good reason. Here in Jamaica, COVID is spiking to unforeseen levels and as the death-toll mounts, even more people are testing positive. Furthermore, the economy faces poor predictions as we enter the traditional slowdown of the tourist season. Arguably, business confidence is at its lowest ever.

Consequently, most of your employees are probably stalled. Confronted by bad news and distracted by children who would normally be in school, they are overwhelmed. Laying awake at night, they are pre-occupied by the need to keep themselves and their loved ones safe.

It seems only natural: in response to a threat, you should focus on defending yourself. However, when the threat is enduring, there’s a limit to how well a good defense works. Case in point: you can’t win the football World Cup by only preventing goals from scoring. Plus, deep within the human spirit lies a steady force that drives us to do more than just survive.

Unfortunately, few corporate leaders know how to transcend the “survival” stage of the pandemic. With each spike, they reset their companies’ attention to the usual: social distancing, wearing masks and working from home. But there will always be spikes…for now. A vaccine won’t make its way to our citizens for several years.

In the meantime, your company may just go out of business.

Instead of waiting and resetting every few months, how can you take your employees out of the “pause”?

1. Think Big

A few years ago, the US Coast Guard had such a challenge. The world was changing rapidly and its old operating mode as the first-responder to sea-based emergencies was no longer working. The threats it faced were now organized: some by terrorists and others by global forces such as climate change.

The organization needed to take into account incipient trends, then rise far above them. As opposed to merely reacting, it needed to shape long-term outcomes. That could not happen in the short term.

Instead, the organization developed a decades-long scenario in which it transformed itself, creating a new, influential role in the future. From that end-point, it worked back to today, resulting in a difficult re-organization impacting thousands.

But my experience leading Jamaican companies planning tells me that the articulation of a vision isn’t enough. To some degree, we are immune from such leader-talk courtesy of politicians. Now your people are, quite rightly, skeptical of bombast.

They should be.

Research shows that overblown visions of the future can be de-motivational. Why? When a goal is too far out of people’s reach, they give up, asking themselves, “Should I waste time on a failure?”

2. Be Fact-Based and Realistic

The first way out of this dilemma is to create a numbers-oriented map of the journey from the future back to the present. Such a chart is quite difficult to craft, but it starts by defining a specific year for your goal, such as our own “Vision Jamaica 2030”.

Furthermore, it must show how critical metrics such as top line revenue, EBITDA and market share need to change to accomplish your end-point. Plus, it needs to capture qualitative milestones. Finally, projects and interventions which take months or years to implement should be added in and synchronized with the other targets.

The end-result is a detailed picture of the journey your organisation must take from now until the stated year of your vision.

Some would say that such detail is likely to be “incorrect”, and they are right. This is not an exercise in prediction or accuracy. Instead, it’s meant to galvanize your organization with not only a destination, but a realistic means of reaching it.

Why is this activity important to employees? Without this level of specificity, they won’t buy-in, and will simply add the goal to their mental list of empty promises. This is the problem with overarching, vague vision statements. They have stopped working because people are immune to the optimism of “world-class” pronouncements which are more ignorant than credible.

One way to tackle this challenge is to involve all your staff in your data gathering. After all, this is their future you are crafting. Take care to address all the facts and assumptions they deem important.

The fact is, in these difficult times people want to be inspired…but moreover, they don’t want to be disappointed by a CEO’s pipe-dream. Focus on creating a vision that’s realistic and you’ll replace their unwanted fears with a motivation that enlivens and lifts them to extraordinary achievement.