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Yes, but... I have a strategy

Mike Freedman

Frequently people want to talk about their negotiating strategy. My immediate (if private) reaction to this is “oh dear!!”

Negotiation is a means of dealing with conflict; it can be stressful.  So, in preparation we tend to surround ourselves with all sorts of tools and defences that will make us feel more powerful or at least more comfortable.  For example people like to play out their negotiation strategy before it happens. Their strategy involves a long storyboard, a sequence of exactly what they and the other side will say and do.

However, there is only one thing that can be guaranteed for any negotiation, and that is
…almost nothing in the discussion will go as you predicted.

Your strategy may as well start “once upon a time”.

You might be thinking, “so what's the harm?”  Let’s have a strategy anyway because if notall of the discussion at least part of it might work out the way you predicted and there will be elements of it that we will use.

But the potential for “harm” is considerable because in every discussion where one side has a strategy (i.e. they feel they have the all encompassing solution), the need to see a result from their detailed preparation assumes more importance than listening to the other side (occasionally even more importance than the outcome itself).  When the other party doesn’t fit in with that strategy we hear “Yes but” and the strategy gets repeated over and over… we hear persuasion, the discussion becomes competitive… because they're not listening they are just promoting an increasingly irrelevant strategy. 

To emphasize the point, consider what are the chances of agreement between two sides each with a determination to adhere to their separate strategies.

For a strategy to work you have to know which of all of the interests of the other party are likely to be affected from their point of view.  You have to be able to list their needs in order of priority.  You must be sure that nothing has changed since you last communicated.  You have to qualify every single relevant assumption that you've made about them. And, if throughout this process any new information comes to the agenda then your strategy will probably no longer be applicable.

Not even in the closest relationships do we have perfect understanding (not even marriage), so rather than diving in with our strategy we need to ask questions.  These questions should be aimed at establishing the other party’s current interests, their current needs, to encourage them to reveal their priorities, to qualify our assumptions about them. Then (and only then) should we take control and make proposals in response to their needs by trading things that we require in return for the things we now understand are important to the other party. 

Every time you find yourself saying "yes but", it means you aren't listening. It means you are at risk of taking an inflexible position, likely to embark on persuasion (that’s not negotiation). It means you think that you have the solution, it means in truth that you are disrespecting the other parties interests.

Once you understand this process I wouldn’t blame you if you threw strategy out of the window because more often than not, strategy is an obstacle to agreement.

Put strategy aside and use the time you would have spent upon preparing a strategy to…

  • brainstorm a very long list of items that you could request from the other side depending upon their needs.
  • prepare a series of questions before you go into the meeting

During the meeting ask these questions to get information and ask more questions to clarify what they're saying and listen.

Finally, next time you feel like saying “yes but”, don’t.  Instead try asking the other party to repeat what they just said, because believe it not; what they just said, is more likely to lead to agreement than what you are about to say.

Mike Freedman

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