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Irrationality & Negotiations

An angry customer, a disappointed boss, an un-cooperative peer, a demanding authority figure, any of these are good enough to unsettle your preparedness for negotiation. You would have planned your stance for days, have every item of rational negotiation checked and yet when you are at the negotiation table - you may feel 'not good enough'. Somewhere you sense that logically moving forward is going nowhere and the negotiation is at status quo and solution sine die.

On the rationality continuum (starting at irrationality and moving on to rationality at the other end), some negotiations are failed starters. They remain predominantly on the irrational side but cannot be avoided because we have collaborative work still to be done. Most of them have an emotional undertone.

I did a solid preparation for my meeting. I had atleast 3 BATNAs to explore. I listened deeply. Yet my negotiation is at ground 0. We are not moving a step further. Worst still, all communication has stopped. The assumed expectation now is that I have to toe the line. Its really frustrating!

Some of my clients come up with such a pain point in their negotiations. While they start at blaming the other for being irrational, it soon dawns on them on what they can do to deal with it. Rational negotiation served them a lot many times. But in some cases, they find, that no amount of hard work or logic work is of help.

In his book, “Never split the difference”, author Chris Voss (ex-FBI hostage negotiator) writes about tactful negotiation even when the other party has irrational demands. Will recommend this as a good read for tough negotiations. According to him there are subtle steps that can help negotiations cross the “irrationality” chasm.

  1. Internal weather: Irrationality and emotion cannot be conquered with countering them with the same formula. The state of mind that one goes into the negotiation can determine to a great deal how it would end. Even though it's not obvious - a calm composed demeanour and talk can go a long way to progress discussions in the right direction. Voss calls it "talking in the late night DJ voice.":-)

2. Pacing & Leading (Mirroring): Pacing is to meet the other party where they are, by matching their tone, body language, words, posture etc. This is a pre-requisite then, to lead them out of their state and move to a place of common ground. Mirroring gives an unconscious signal to the other person that we are “safe” and mean “no harm”. For some year end fun, you can watch a good example in the movie Karate kid.

3. Asking “No” questions: We all have a bias for “yes”. We want to hear more of a yes to every question that we ask. While the other party is guarded to say a yes, they drop it while saying a “No”. So questions that can be answered in “no” are preferred to break ice. eg: Do you want our organisation to suffer? Have you given up on our project?

4. Labelling: Voicing in words 'the emotions and thoughts' the other person is going through, with out being judgemental is labelling. Eg: It seems that you are frustrated that your department will not get credit for the hard work you are putting in…..It looks like you feel left out……

5. Eliciting thought process: Asking “how” questions to the other party, helps to hear what’s their thought process/ mental model with the negotiation item in consideration. Eg: How do you think my team de-prioritising this item will impact your work? More labelling and mirroring with the answer that one gets will work wonders.

6. Calibrated questioning to elicit solution for an unreasonable demand: Quite surprisingly, sometimes , the opposite party can see things we cannot and vice versa, In order to be on the same page, its good to invite them to be part of the solution space. Eg: How can I prioritise this item when I have Project A occupying all my resources?

7. Locus of control: Giving the other person a sense of control and power by acknowledging who they are and their place in the context gives them the idea that we understand them. Using the same, more “no” questions can be framed to lead them towards the space where there is open mindedness. Eg: It seems like you are a person who is fair in your asks....It looks like a person of your seniority is asking the best for the organisation...

Is this the magic bullet to tilt irrational negotiations in your favour - No. But with practice, you may end up being an excellent negotiator and that may lead you to a lot more favourable outcomes in your leadership journey.

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