When preparing for and conducting negotiations, we are usually confronted by a large number of questions with unknown answers... What do our counterparts really want? What are the limits of their willingness to negotiate with us and how are they going to behave?
This is a common problem when dealing with many types of challenging scenarios where the other parties either struggle to communicate effectively or choose not to share.
In an extreme example, military forces need to know a lot about potential adversaries' capabilities and intentions, and as a result they have a whole intelligence gathering and analysis function built around this need. Potential adversaries are striving to limit exactly this kind of knowledge and at times trying to introduce spurious or misleading information.
Hopefully your negotiations are not facing this sort of challenge, but some deliberate thinking about what type of intelligence you would find useful in your negotiations and how you might get it can be a real ‘war winner’ for you.
I’d stress up front that a combative mindset is generally unhelpful in most negotiations, so please look carefully at the parallels between military intelligence and negotiations.
Military intelligence is treated both as a profession and as a specialist function supported by the entire team. Intelligence is long on deliberate planning and preparation, collection of multiple sources of information and development of specialist collection techniques to produce raw products, which are then subject to correlation and analysis. Multiple hypotheses are generated, and indicators that they are an active or preferred course of action are identified, as are potential responses. During the conduct of operations, intelligence collection and analysis continues and accelerates, much is learned in real time and plans adjust dynamically according to opposition actions and signals based on those indicators... Ultimately, intelligence plays a crucial role in achieving success and learning from failure.
In many ways, this isn’t a bad paradigm for negotiations, and we can easily identify things that could be incorporated into our negotiation practice:
- During the preparation phase, can we deliberately include some reflection on what we are sure of in relation to our counterparts and challenge our other ‘beliefs’ to ensure we understand where certainty falters... Assigning a team member to monitor assumptions and offer a sceptical view can be really constructive.
- Can we do specific research into our counterpart's capabilities and intentions? What is publicly available and what has our organisation learned in the past? What do we know of our counterpart's wider performance, issues, weaknesses and strengths. What might they need from us? How important are we to them? How have they worked with others or our organisation in the past?
- In planning our negotiation conduct, do we have a team structure and a plan for specialist roles to deliberately look for intelligence? Most people, even when striving to negotiate collaboratively, do not communicate as well or as frequently as they might hope. Others perversely believe in ‘holding their cards close’ but in all cases, a thoughtful listener with a reflective stance (not involved heavily in the overt conduct of the negotiations) can discern a lot even when our counterparts are being cautious.
- Do we make time in the negotiations to work away from the table and is the question of intelligence gleaned a firm inclusion in all our sessions? Are they really doing what we expected? Will we give serious consideration to the possibility that our counterpart doesn’t want what we thought they did? History is full of ‘surprise’ attacks and often rich with signals that were missed about them...
- Unlike military intelligence, if we ask a relevant and constructive question, we will most probably get a fairly truthful answer. So, do we plan to ask a lot of questions? Will we use open questions to confirm what we think we know and learn new information, or will we just ask something as a filler or when we are lost and confused...
- Are we respectful about the possibility for ambiguous or contradictory intelligence? Do we know how to summarise our counterparts positions to test what we think we understand? Could we discern a signal that our understanding was imperfect, and do we know how to prompt further disclosure?
- In making our proposals, do we understand the absolute importance of attending to our counterparts, making time for their questions and helping with their summaries? What might we learn from their questions and how do we structure a question back to them to unpack a new issue or seek clarification?
- Ultimately, when the negotiation is over, do we rush back to our ‘real jobs’ or do we spend a little bit of time reflecting on how it went and what could we have done better? Even if we got what we wanted, could we have done so faster, could more value have been created, did the conduct of the negotiation setup a productive relationship for implementing the agreement? If we broke off negotiations without an agreement, do we understand all the factors that made that the best course of action or do we just blame our counterparts? What might we do differently next time, and could we re-engage with a different manner or new proposals to obtain an agreement?
Ultimately, in both settings, intelligence is about being respectful about the likely shortcomings in trusted information upon which to act and deliberate about closing that gap. Next time you need to conduct a complex negotiation, maybe think about it as an intelligence/information exchange and ask yourself if you are doing enough about those uncertainties. If you get stuck, maybe call your local intelligence officer (Scotwork adviser) and get some professional help distilling the information into actionable opportunities?