Can negotiation research make you a better presenter?

Making presentations is a major part of many people’s jobs. So wouldn’t it be nice to somehow make presentations more negotiable?

Here, as in many areas, negotiation research can help. In particular, a broad reading of the negotiation literature’s distinction between distributive and integrative approaches can help to manage the many types of difficult audience members you might encounter when presenting.

First, let’s unpack the distinction. Negotiators can approach their task using a distributive or integrative approach. A distributive approach involves competitively and aggressively seeking to achieve your own interests at the expense of the counterpart’s. An integrative approach involves cooperatively and creatively seeking solutions to satisfy both parties at the same time. Negotiators can adopt either approach (or both) in nearly any context (for example, consider this application to intra-family negotiations).

And now, let’s see how the two approaches can help us deal with some prototypically nettlesome audience members—people in the audience of our presentations who…

  1. Say they have a question but really have a comment: Under the distributive approach, you’d say, “What’s the question?” in an attempt to call them out. Under the integrative approach, you’d acknowledge the comment and transform it into a question you can answer, thereby validating their point but repositioning the ball in your own court.
  2. Love to hear themselves talk: The distributive approach would involve cutting them off. An integrative approach would involve asking them to pause while you answer the first twelve parts of their 434238497234-part question, then asking them if it’s ok to take the rest offline (most will oblige).
  3. Are saying something dumb: The distributive approach would involve dismissing their comments on the basis of dumbness. The integrative approach involves finding the kernel of wisdom buried in every dumb comment, then rephrasing it in smarter terms. (Making others look smarter than they are is often a good idea.)
  4. Ask about something you’re planning mention shortly: Under the distributive approach, you’d say, “I’ll get to that.” Under the integrative approach, you’d complement them for acutely anticipating your line of thinking, then ask whether it’s ok to address it in X slides. Again, most are happy to oblige.
  5. Are frowning and crossing their arms: The distributive approach would involve fixating on them and trying to convince them. As described in my book, the integrative approach would involve finding more amenable negotiation partners, namely the others in the audience who are smiling and supportive.

And so, there’s a distributive and an integrative way to interact with the many difficult members of our audiences. Although I’m sure we’ve never been difficult audience members ourselves, we’ve all been on the receiving end of a distributive presenter. On that basis, I hope we can all commit to following the integrative approach ourselves.

Compromise: The bane of your next team presentation

I have often contended that—contrary to popular wisdom—compromise is bad. The fundamental problem? Compromise takes two people’s desires and cuts them in half, leaving nobody particularly happy. Sure, it’s better than an impasse (sometimes). But it’s often worse than a variety of more creative solutions.

Nowhere is the problem more apparent than in the creation of a team presentation. Indeed, if you’re tasked with creating such a presentation, avoiding a compromise is often the only way to make life negotiable.

Huh? A story to illustrate:

A colleague and I were recently asked to coteach a class that covers two related but distinct topics—let’s call them apples and oranges. Given that apples and oranges are two distinct fruits, and given that my colleague is naturally more familiar with the apples from his normal course while I’m more familiar with the oranges from mine, the easiest thing to do—and the thing most people do—is slap half the apples and half the oranges into a single presentation, in sequence. A compromise! It avoids disagreement, minimizes additional work, and appears to respect everyone’s thinking. Right?

Well, yes, but anyone who’s ever done that (or heard that presentation) knows the outcome: an incoherent mishmash of a presentation—a presentation where we learn all there is to know about apples from presenter 1 and all there is to know about oranges from presenter 2. But then we walk away scratching our heads about what in the world apples have to do with oranges, or even what the whole presentation was about. Compromise, in the context of a team presentation, fails us badly.

But luckily, there’s a better way. And luckily, my colleague and I knew enough about the pitfalls of compromise to adopt it. Instead of half a presentation about apples and a half a presentation about oranges, how about a whole presentation about a two-fruit salad? In other words, how about a presentation that takes the best parts of each person’s thinking, integrates them in a coherent way, and uses the resulting integration to extract new insights that would’ve occurred to neither alone.

Yes, of course, it takes more time. But, to smash the fruit metaphor into a pulp, I assure you that it almost always results in a tastier dish. And it usually takes less time than scrapping the incoherent two-fruit sequence, then mixing up an entirely new fruit salad, as you’ll probably have to do in response to the negative feedback generated by the initial presentation.

So the next time you’re tasked with compiling a team presentation—or tempted to compromise in general—consider the possibility that meeting in the middle is neither necessary nor necessarily desirable. Integrating the best of everyone’s thinking to produce a novel and intriguing whole often results in a far juicer final product.

Responding to organizational stupidity: To highlight or understand?

People in organizations make stupid statements all the time. They get the facts wrong in presentations. They make nonsensical statements in meetings. They portray an undoubtedly incorrect conclusion as the Gospel truth.

Assuming you want to respond to a stupid statement, you face a choice. Should you highlight the stupidity latent in the statement, or should you try to understand its source? In my experience, one of these choices is more appealing to most people, but the other can make life more negotiable.

To see which is which, let’s conduct a thought experiment (inspired by Pascal’s famous wager): Suppose you’re sitting in a presentation, and the person presenting—a visitor from another department, perhaps—keeps saying something that strikes you as patently wrong. It’s time to ask questions, and you now face a choice: use your question to highlight the stupidity of the statement (e.g., “Why do you keep saying X when it’s Y?”) or use it to try and understand the source of the stupidity (e.g., “Can you tell me more about your thinking on X?”)?

Having heard one of those questions, the presenter then responds. And here’s the critical question: What’s everybody else in the room going to think of you and presenter after they do? A moment’s reflection suggests that it depends the presenter’s response—namely, whether they have any semblance of a good reason for saying X, even though you think it’s Y. As anyone who has worked in an organization knows, they very well may not—but they just well may.

Let’s consider the four possibilities, along with the likely perceptions of the others in the room:

  1. You highlight the stupidity. They have no good reason for saying X. Likely outcome: Everyone thinks you’re smart, and the presenter is dumb. But everyone also thinks you’re kind of a jerk for asking the question that way.
  2. You highlight the stupidity. They do have a good reason for saying X. Likely outcome: Everyone thinks you’re dumb, and the presenter is smart. Everyone also thinks you’re kind of a jerk for asking the question that way.
  3. You try to understand the stupidity. They have no good reason for saying X. Likely outcome: Everything thinks you’re smart, and the presenter is dumb. Everyone also thinks you’re likable, humble, and mature for asking the question that way.
  4. You try to understand the stupidity. They do have a good reason for saying X. Likely outcome: Everyone thinks you’re dumb, and the presenter is smart. But everyone also thinks you’re likable, humble, and mature for asking the question that way.

Obviously, I’m overstating others’ perceptions for dramatic effect. But it’s easy to see your best possible outcome (#3) occurs when you try to understand the stupidity, and your worst outcome (#2) when you highlight it. Additionally, consider decades of research showing that people place more emphasis on a person’s warmth than their competence when making interpersonal judgments—they generally care more about a person’s benevolence than their brains. And consider recent research showing that people may place even more emphasis on a person’s integrity, which would seem to overlap somewhat with the above qualities of humility and maturity. Both streams of research would suggest that the worst possible outcome you could get by trying to understand the stupidity (#4) is better than the best outcome you could get by highlighting it (#1).

In short, if you buy my predictions and the research I just mentioned, it rarely makes sense to highlight the stupidity. Unfortunately, that option seems to hold a nearly boundless appeal for many members of organizations. Little do they know they’re making life less negotiable…

How do you respond to stupid comments in organizations?