Room for Debate

It's tough to choose words wisely in the heat of an argument. Learn to fight right.

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You may not think of it this way, but each of us makes use of our negotiation skills almost every day. You don't have to be haggling with a car salesman or sitting in a business meeting to be involved in negotiation; it can be as simple as deciding where to go to dinner with your boyfriend, or what to watch on TV with your family.

If you aren't getting what you'd like out of your interpersonal dealings, or your relationships are suffering from the strain of conflict, you might be using ineffective negotiating strategies. Better negotiation skills can make you happier at home, more successful at the office, and more personally effective in any group situation. It doesn't come naturally to everyone, but anyone can learn to be a more effective negotiator.

While every situation is different, certain basics apply to any negotiation. The first thing to consider is that you should not approach negotiation with a rigid insistence on a specific outcome. The goal of every negotiation should be to create a "win-win" solution for everyone involved. "Wait", you may say, "Isn't the whole point of negotiation to get what you want?"

Well, there may be certain situations where you can get away with sticking stubbornly to your position, but in most cases there is a bigger picture to consider. Is it worth going to the movie only you want to see if it creates feelings of frustration and resentment in your friends? Is it worth getting the price you demand from a supplier if it will impede business deals in the future? Pursuing an "I win—you lose" strategy means risking damage to your relationship with the other party. In general, an everybody-wins philosophy creates longer-lasting and more successful outcomes than a winner-takes-all approach.

The key concept is fairness. Not only will fair outcomes help you preserve good relations with other parties, appealing to fairness can be a potent weapon against entities that appear more powerful on paper. A negotiation shouldn't be a contest of wills or positional posturing, it should be a progress toward mutually satisfying outcomes based on the facts of the matter.

In order to arrive at a fair solution, one must understand the situation well from the point of view of all parties involved. An important step toward that understanding is planning ahead. Analyze the situation and think through your strategy beforehand. Don't just consider the issues from your own perspective, try to learn what the other side wants—and what they think you want.

Planning ahead assures you that your point of view will be well communicated, and that time won't be wasted in misunderstandings. Even before the first word is exchanged, honestly assess the interests of the other party, and invent options that could result in mutual gain. Be willing to consider many possibilities and combinations of options. Be flexible. Determine which are the key issues, and plan to discuss them in order of priority.

Be sure to listen. It may yield a new understanding of the facts of the matter. Don't just focus on your own ideas. Turn off your internal dialogue and actually hear what the other person is saying. Also pay attention to nonverbal messages like facial expressions and eye contact.

Once a dialogue begins, adhere to the issues and insist on using an objective standard—such as expert opinion, or even the law—to evaluate them. Do not seek to argue based on positions, instead focus on the interests of the parties involved. Look for points where you can agree, rather than areas of conflict.

"Separate the people from the problem," advise Roger Fisher and William Ury in their classic book about negotiation, Getting to Yes. Do not lapse into personal attacks on the person with whom you're negotiating. Neither allow yourself to participate in a defend/attack spiral, which is completely counterproductive. If the opposite party appears determined to initiate attacks against you, put a stop to it by refusing to say anything aggressive or defensive. Again, stick to facts of the matter and principles of fairness.

Treat your interlocutor with respect. Be soft on people, but hard on the issues. Look for common ground rather than entrenching in conflicting positions, in order to show willingness to cooperate and reduce hostile feelings. Don't attempt to intimidate the other party.

Lastly, keep in mind that the biggest influence on the direction negotiation will take depends on the mindset of the participants. With the right philosophy, you can feel good about both the results of your negotiations and about yourself; negotiation can even be fun for everyone involved.

Room for Debate