Negotiation: How compassion can decode emotion & unlock the deal

Posted by Stevie Brown

Much like driving, most of us probably like to think we’re above average when it comes to negotiating. After all, negotiations are an essential part of business and many of us do it every day with our customers, suppliers, partners and even colleagues. But when the pressure is on and the stakes are high, negotiations can reach deadlock, misinterpretations can occur, conflict can spiral out of control and money can be left on the table.

If you want to change people’s minds, we first need to learn what they’re thinking. 

Harvard Business School Professor in negotiation, James K. Sebenius, defines negotiation as, ‘understanding the other party’s interest and getting them to choose what you want – for their own reasons’. In his teaching he outlines five critical factors in negotiation:

  1. Relationship - A strong working relationship with the other party
  2. Shared expectations - about the nature of the partnership
  3. Process - A respectful, straightforward, and fair process
  4. Interests of all players - who might affect the deal
  5. Price

Critical Factprs

In these high-pressure environments how can we ensure that we get it right when we need to be at our most persuasive? Using Prof Sebenius’s five critical factors, we’ll take a look at the first four and discuss a range of tactics with a specific focus on emotions that can be implemented to help refine your high-stakes negotiation skills.

Getting off to the best start

In my experience, approaching negotiations with compassion (Empathy + action = compassion) front of mind always helps us to better understand the point of view of the other party, and follow Prof Sebenius’s critical factors. This is by no means an easy feat and requires real time acute self-awareness.  

 Avoiding cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance

This is a situation where conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviours are presented; typically creating a standoff situation where the two parties have opposing views. This can result in negotiations reaching deadlock and in the worst case can cause emotions to spiral out of control. If this situation occurs it doesn’t matter how many well-argued logical facts you present, it will not help resolve the situation. All that will happen is both parties will dig their heels in even more determined than ever to prove the other wrong. We instead need to ask questions without judging them to understand the opposing view in an effort to try and find a middle ground that both parties can agree. This helps to build trust and nurture the relationship.     

Reduce the threat

When people feel that their autonomy is being challenged or removed it triggers a threat response

Particularly in challenging negotiations it is important that the other party doesn’t feel they are being judged, as this will trigger them to feel threatened and emotional thinking will kick in. When we are in a heightened emotional state we are not thinking at our most clear. (Think of the sage advice of never responding to an email when angry). 

When people feel that their autonomy is being challenged or removed it triggers a threat response and can result in people being less cooperative at best and destructive at worst. If you think this could be an issue it can be helpful to address the matter by simply reassuring the individual that you have their back. But be mindful that they are unlikely to fully buy in until they see you demonstrate this in action. This feeds into the fourth critical factor - interests of all players.

For example, Fiona is a cost management consultant and is in negotiation with a manufacturing company to win a contract to review where they can save costs. The chief executive, chief finance officer and chief operations officer are all at the table. The CEO wants to increase business efficiency to deliver more orders, the CFO wants to save money, but the COO doesn’t want a consultant to come in at all. He feels that this is his job, he can deliver what Fiona is saying she will do. He feels threatened because his autonomy has been challenged.

It’s easy for Fiona to show value in how she will increase efficiency and reduce cost, winning the buy in of the CEO and CFO. The challenging part of the negotiation is getting the COO on board. It’s Fiona’s priority to remove the ‘threat’ as quickly as possible in the negotiation (we’ll look at how she may do this in the next section). Remembering the first rule of communication in establishing behavioural change, we must first speak to the emotions before facts and rational can be communicated.

Suspend bias

If you want to change people’s minds, we first need to learn what they’re thinking. Starting a negotiation with strong bias makes understanding the other party’s perspective difficult. I would recommend suspending any thought of what is right and wrong and simply be on listening mode. In this phase the information gained can be so useful in creating a persuasive response to help guide the other party to the conclusion that you want.

In our example, Fiona should listen to all the reasons why the COO doesn’t want her service, resisting the urge to correct him and at the right time reflect back his concerns and link them to the process (critical factor 3) in a bid to remove any form of threat and ideally re-establish his autonomy.

If the negotiation becomes emotional, empty the tank  

When people get emotional they stop listening and instead become consumed by trying to prove that their truth is the law and we must agree. It’s difficult, but we must refrain from trying to correct the other party which will inevitable lead to an argument and instead encourage them to empty their tank of reasons why we are wrong and why they are right.

It’s important that you listen well, don’t interrupt them, and at appropriate regular intervals reflect back to the other party to show that you have heard them and taken on-board their perspective. And it is just that, their perspective, it’s not right or wrong, it’s simply their point of view.

Using language like, ‘Can I just make sure that I understand your perspective, in that XYZ is concerning you which makes you feel ABC, have I got that right?’ Once they have everything off their chest, and in doing so have talked themselves down from the heightened emotional state, we are in a position to re-set the negotiation.

In our example, we know that the COO will feel that their autonomy is being challenged (which triggers the threat response). Once the COO has finished telling Fiona all the reasons why they don’t need her, she may reply with a something that looks like this. “I completely understand your perspective. If it’s alright with you, can I share with you my understanding?”    

Find things you can agree on

Even when positions may seem far apart, interests may be compatible. Try and identify common underlying interests that you can agree on which will help shape an agreement that addresses everyone’s interests. At the manufacturing company, the COO’s position is he doesn’t want an external consultant, but he does want to strengthen the overseas distribution network but lacks contacts. This is an area that Fiona has much experience in and so it is possible for the parties to align under compatible interests.

If you would like more information on change management, sales team training or simply to discuss your communication needs, please get in touch with us today.

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