How NOT to fail at negotiating: what we can learn from the supercommittee
Guess what, the supercommittee failed. I know, I know...I was shocked, too! Could it have been in the way it was designed? Possibly. Let's consider some of the basic mistakes that were made in the design of the supercommittee that guaranteed failure just as those same mistakes would result in the same outcome in any business negotiation.
Here are three sure-fire conditions to create failure in a negotiation process:
1. Both sides have the same non-negotiables -- It is hard to imagine a successful outcome to negotiation when both parties have established opposite positions on the same "non-negotiable" items. It means that no one is negotiating in good faith, but rather for some other purpose...say, political theater, perhaps?
2. Send surrogates, not decision-makers -- Negotiation and "carrier-pigeoning" other people's messages are two very different activities. If you want to negotiate in good faith, you have to send people with enough authority to frame an agreement, make concessions and accept the general tenets of offers. When everyone at the table is ceremonial, it's Kabuki.
3. Don't define what winning looks like -- Most good journeys start with a mutually understood destination that everyone agrees to. If only one party knows the destination and forces the other along against its will, it's called kidnapping. Defining what winning means is also not the same thing as defining what losing means. This committee was brought together with a clear understanding of what failure would mean, but not the same clarity of what winning would require.
Negotiation is not only for national and international policy. Private corporations negotiate all the time. This frequency does not always mean that they avoid the traps listed above. Frankly, the reasons the traps were there is that they are typical and easy to fall into.
Now that you know how not to negotiate, here are several recommendations to increase the potential of success:
1. Start with common ground -- The best negotiators I have seen begin the discussion with common ground -- items both parties can agree upon and from which a shared vision can be built. By declaring the common ground, you create a safe place to return to when things become heated.
2. Empower real negotiators -- Of course, final sign-off for negotiated agreements requires approval of a higher body such as the board of directors, congress, the business owner and so on. However, if you want progress in the process then your negotiators and theirs must be able to maneuver in good faith with dialogue that carries support. Don't send empty suits -- your counterparts will do the same and both sides will waste a lot of time.
3. Take the time to define "winning" for both sides -- Defining the conditions of success at the outset should not be confused with negotiating. Negotiations are about getting to the outcomes that have been agreed upon in spirit at the beginning of the conversation. If you don't have enough trust to mutually declare and agree upon what a successful outcome is, there is little chance of achieving a negotiated agreement.
A great primer on negotiating was written about the Oslo Accords by one of the chief negotiators, Uri Savir, and it's called "The Process." Some of the ideas in this post come from the things he taught at a conference I attended on negotiation in Vietnam.
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