Dealing with the dense: Implicit negotiation

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of taking my daughters to one of those fall farm thingies—you know, the combination hayride / pumpkin patch / opportunity to pet some animals? At one point, my four-year old expressed a desire to climb up and drive a pretend wooden tractor, only to be pushed aside by a boy at least twice her age.

Apparently he needed to drive that tractor to Tahiti, as he was up in the saddle for at least five minutes. And apparently his father was heading to Tahiti too (or left his brain there), as he showed no particular concern for my eagerly awaiting daughter or the line of increasingly anxious toddlers behind her. “Daddy, I wanna get UP there!” mine insisted.

Now here’s an approach that can make life negotiable, I thought. Speaking loudly enough to be heard over the engine of a tractor, even though this particular tractor didn’t have one, I replied: “You’ll have to wait your turn, honey. It’s important for EVERYONE to take turns on this tractor.” Apparently that reply loosened a few lug nuts in the dense guy’s head, as he rapidly summoned his progeny down from the tractor. And up went my four-year old.

Fall farm thingies aren’t the only venues in which we face the prospect of confrontations with potentially dense people. If they were, this story would be little more than a funny diversion. But I’d guess that most of us, at some point in our professional lives, have had to deal with a coworker who wasn’t pulling their weight. Right? 

In these situations, like the tractor showdown, emotions build while conflicts brew. In these situations, like the tractor showdown, we might eventually have to confront the problematic person head-on. But in these situations, like the tractor showdown, we might save everyone a few headaches by trying another strategy first: implicit negotiation, in which we signal our concerns by saying something to someone else.

Suppose that Jim wasn’t pulling his weight on a three-person team also consisting of you and Jane. You could potentially confront Jim, and you may yet have to do that. But first, why not strike up a conversation with Jane when Jim happens to be sitting in the next cube (and probably surfing the net)? “Jane,” you might say loudly, I’m concerned that you had to assume too much responsibility for the last report. It’s important that we all do our fair share. How can we make sure that none of us has to do too much on the next report?” You might even coordinate her reply in a little pre-meeting huddle.

Now, Jim, head buried in the Daily Mail, may not hear you, in which case you’ll have to deal with him directly. Then again, it’s always possible Jim, like the dense dad with the tractor kid, will actually hear you and densely process the implications.

It’s not a foolproof strategy, but what strategies are? Nevertheless, I’ve found implicit negotiation better than direct confrontation, if it just so happens to penetrate some grey matter.

Have you ever used implicit negotiation?

 

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