Mythical images of negotiation

Picture a negotiation. What comes to mind? Two people, explicitly negotiating for a fixed period of time, over a fixed set of issues, from opposite sides of a table. Right?

Common and obvious as that image may be, I’m here to tell you that it represents precious few negotiations in the real world. Outside of our minds and negotiation classrooms, negotiations look a whole lot different—and a whole lot messier.

Since detecting a negotiation can prompt you to think and act more strategically, thereby making life more negotiable, let’s look at five features of many negotiations in the real world. Throughout, please imagine an omnipresent, real-world negotiation situation: your desire to convince your work colleagues to do something:

  1. Multiple (or many) people: Real-world negotiations rarely involve just two people. Convincing your work colleagues to do anything consequential, for example, will probably require you to talk to at least a few of them, possibly at a few levels of hierarchy and in a few departments. At a minimum, you’ll have to CC them on the emails.
  2. Nobody (or not everybody) detects a negotiation: In the real world, people don’t typically sit down and think, “let’s negotiate” or “we’re negotiating.” Rather, they have a problem or goal, which they bring to a variety of other people in a variety of subsequent situations. In the entire duration of your negotiation with work colleagues, for example, it’s doubtful that anybody (with the possible exception of you) will explicitly label your efforts a negotiation.
  3. Long and uncertain period of time: Real-world negotiations don’t usually fit neatly into a 30- or 45-minute boxes. They happen in fits and starts over long and uncertain periods of time, erupting in an explosion of activity at certain (seemingly random) times and languishing in long periods of inactivity. To convince your organizational colleagues, for example, you’ll probably solicit some informal feedback, meet with your boss, slowly socialize the idea among your colleagues, and withstand a long period of messy implementation discussions. That’s all negotiation.
  4. Fluid issues: Real-world negotiations don’t usually fit neatly into 1-4 discrete and mutually exclusive issues, easily quantified. They involve an uncertain set of issues at the outset, at best. Subsequently, some issues meander onto the table unexpectedly. And other issues fall by the wayside inexplicably. You probably won’t anticipate all of your colleagues’ concerns with your suggestion at the outset, for example, nor will all of those concerns necessarily have anything to do with the final solution.
  5. Fluid communications: In the real-world, precious few negotiations occur in formal meetings at physical tables. Sure, you’ll have a few formal meetings to promote your plan, but you’ll also have an array of phone calls, Skype calls, emails, water-cooler chats, and chance encounters in the elevator. The entire messy process is a negotiation.

From this discussion, it’s easy to see that the negotiations in our minds look very little like many of the negotiations in our real lives. It seems that we hold mythical images of negotiation in addition to mythical images of negotiators. In both cases, it’s important to recognize the differences, as we’ll otherwise fail to deploy our best negotiation skills (or succeed in deploying the wrong ones). So here’s hoping this post helps you identify the negotiations and negotiators you’ll most likely in the real world.

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