Negotiating your way through upheaval

We live in an age of upheaval—political, social, and viral. So, I thought it might be useful to ponder the possibility that times of great upheaval call for great negotiation skills. Indeed, in unsettling times like these, negotiation is often the only way to make life negotiable.

Consider the following five reasons why upheaval and negotiation often go hand-in-hand, along with some COVID-related examples:

  1. The old rules don’t apply: When the world changes, the old rules rarely change with it. Indeed, that’s kinda the point of rules—to prescribe boundaries impervious to external changes. As just one example, consider the fact that well-worn rules about the hours you’re expected to work and availability you’re expected to maintain don’t apply when everyone knows you’re inches from your computer all the time. Negotiating a new norm may offer the only way forward.
  2. New problems arise: When to work and how available to make yourself is an old problem with worn-out rules as the solution. But upheaval also tends to create entirely new and unanticipated problems—like the need to work out the terms of interaction with individuals who have very different social distancing preferences, needs, or political stances. Since new problems don’t even have worn-out rules, they place even more emphasis on negotiation.
  3. New opportunities arise: Times of upheaval don’t just create problems—they create opportunities. Perhaps Winston Churchill was recognizing as much when he said: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” To consider an example close to home, many of us have recently discovered how our idiosyncratic talents—mask-sewing, sourdough-baking, podcast-recording—might represent new business opportunities. But capitalizing on new business opportunities—like most opportunities—requires negotiation with a plethora of people (e.g., partners, suppliers, customers, funders, etc.).
  4. Circumstances change fast: Even when the rules do change with a changing world, they rarely change fast enough. For example, many of us work for organizations that have already had to bin their business strategies for the next decade even though the new rules of engagement are not yet clear. Without a clear roadmap for the future, people will naturally use their individual preferences and viewpoints to chart a path forward. And whenever those preferences and viewpoints clash without a clear and relevant standard of adjudication, negotiation is often the only way of averting a conflict.
  5. New relationships emerge: Times of upheaval have a way of forcing us into new patterns of interpersonal interaction. For example, many of us now find ourselves spending less time with coworkers and more time with extended family and community members. Insofar as extended family and community members have different preferences and viewpoints on issues like mask-wearing, hobbies, and personal space—not that they ever do—negotiation becomes essential.

So, upheavals have a way of thrusting negotiation to the forefront—of forcing us to negotiate our way through the new and evolving muddle of everyday life. Here’s hoping that some careful attention to negotiation can make these unsettling times at least a little more negotiable.

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