Mythical images of the negotiator

I recently attended the International Association of Conflict Management meeting in Berlin—an opportunity for negotiation researchers like myself to geek out. And in the process of geeking out, I had an interesting albeit especially geeky thought: the image of negotiation and negotiators that most of us hold in our brains is actually quite different than the portrait painted by negotiation research. Put simply, our images of negotiation and negotiators are more often mythical than evidence-based.

In the hope that evidence can make life negotiable (especially in the era of a self-identified Negotiator-in-Chief), I offer the following contrasts between mythical and evidence-based negotiation. In mythical negotiation…

  1. Negotiation is mostly about doing huge deals. When we hear the word negotiation, we think of multi-billion dollar mergers and business contracts—issues that grab the headlines and everyone’s attention. In actuality, most of the world’s negotiations focus on issues that are totally unimportant to anyone other than you. It’s a negotiation when your child won’t eat, your spouse won’t do the dishes, and your seatmate won’t cooperate on a flight. Most negotiations concern our own daily difficulties—issues that matter only to us.
  2. Negotiations focus on money. Relatedly, we tend to equate the word negotiation with the word money. And yes, many negotiations involve money. But many just don’t—consider the three right above. And in many that do, it’s the qualitative issues rather than the monetary issues that really make the difference. You’ll never get the car dealer to agree with your preferred price, but you just might get him to throw in some oil changes.
  3. The best negotiators are jerks. We tend to assume that the best negotiators must be people with whom we’d never want to share a flight or have a dinner (watch the beginning of this Facebook video where our Negotiator-in-Chief says just that)—people who aggressively demand concessions and accommodations from everyone around them. In fact, the best negotiators are the very people with whom we’d most want to dine or fly—people who listen carefully and respond thoughtfully, who trust and seem to understand us, and who ensure that we walk away feeling at least reasonably satisfied with the conversation.
  4. The best negotiators are easy to identify. Relatedly, we tend to think that we can spot a great negotiator when we see one. It’s the driver zipping around in the Mercedes and cutting everyone off. Or the CEO slamming their fist on the table and demanding that a poor subordinate come up with something better. In fact, the best negotiators are invisible—to us, yes, but often even to themselves. If I had a quarter for every time I taught a negotiation class and observed a self-proclaimed “bad negotiator” eventually get the “Best Negotiator” award…
  5. The key to negotiation success is tactics. We tend to think that the most effective negotiators use the most sophisticated tactics—the car dealer who slips in “one additional fee” after we’ve already signed the contract, or the politician who corners a colleague into supporting a pork-barrel amendment. Tactics are certainly important. Any claim to the contrary would be silly. But more important than tactics—and perhaps much more important—is preparation. If the best negotiators display the most sophisticated tactics, it’s only because they spent the most time and effort preparing, understanding everything there is to know about themselves, the people across the table, and the negotiation situation itself.

In sum, negotiations and negotiators are steeped in mythology, very little of which holds up to empirical investigation. So few of us should be surprised when our most prominent negotiators promulgate the mythology but experience much more difficulty in reality.

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