CONFLICT AT THE NEGOTIATING TABLE
Turning swords into shares
When we tiptoe around our differences, we negotiate in a half-hearted way and get limited results.
Bill Sanders and Frank Mobus
Leading through conflict means believing in the possibility of what does not yet exist. It requires focusing on the luminous opportunity that lies at the end of the tunnel of obstacles.
This article is an advanced level study of some the conflict principles that the modern negotiator should incorporate in her negotiating skillset. As such it does not require the negotiator to be involved in classical conflict environments (such as mediation and conflict resolution practice), and these principles remain relevant and of practical value in a purely commercial negotiation environment. The science and art of commercial negotiation has come a long way.
From its hard dog-eat-dog beginnings, to the compromise and win-win approaches advocated by people like William Ury. But, especially in the commercial world affected by Covid, everything from academic case studies to practical boardroom experiences show very little support for the continuation in use of the bulk of these negotiation strategies. All of these developments point to current negotiation practices simply not meeting the real-world demands of our new disruptive, ultracompetitive world. Modern commercial negotiation is not about compromise; it is about creativity. And creativity, together with all the added challenges of a sluggish economy, structural inefficiencies and legislative demands bring about new conflicts that have a direct bearing on our bottom line results and profitability.
Our conflict negotiation courses and distance learning programs consistently over the last number of years show how middle and senior management negotiators are either not trained at all (relying on experience, self-taught outdated bits and pieces of information), or trained briefly and superficially in negotiation methods ten or twenty years out of date. As a result, we have more than one generation of senior negotiators simply trying to land some sort of safe agreement, simply aiming for the lowest achievable result, with so much value left uncreated or left on the table.
Conflict is often (if considered at all) simply seen as an inevitable by-product of negotiation, a factor that is largely out of our control, or one that we have to simply grit our teeth against and get on with it. But, as we will see, this peripheral approach to conflict at the negotiation table is as outdated and harmful to efficiency (and possibly to commercial survival) as the outdated negotiation strategies we mentioned above. Conflict should be understood and harnessed in the modern negotiating team’s training and skills, to the point where these modern best practices form a natural and indispensable part of your negotiation experience and results. An important consideration for the modern negotiating team and their modern pressures is that the incorporation of these skills can be a measurable and transferable system of individual and team coaching.
HOW CONFLICT INFLUENCES OUR NEGOTIATION GOALS AND RESULTS
As negotiators will readily concede, most commercial negotiations are high-pressure environments, with time and money being currencies often prioritized more than the people involved. This highly competitive and often frustrating environment. A seemingly endless array of factors, from budget constraints to deadlines, production problems to strikes, from obstructive people on their side and ours, all conspire to make commercial negotiations a breeding ground for conflict. And, as formal and anecdotal evidence show us, South Africans are generally not very skilled in handling these conflicts, often with short and long term negative impact on the goals their companies seek to achieve. Poor or underperforming results are often blamed on the easily observable cogs in the machine, such as budgets, unreasonable clients, economic factors, deadlines and even on the negotiators themselves, while the direct or contributing cause to these results can be traced back to a lack of understanding of how conflict resulting from the negotiation process influence these results, and an inability to effectively integrate these conflict principles into the overall negotiation strategy.
Let’s look at a few practical examples of such integration process.
CONFLICT AS NEGOTIATING TOOL
- A good place to start this shift of mind-set is to make peace with conflict. Company cultures often, for good reasons, seek to limit or banish dissent and conflict, and creative conflict is seen as something to be avoided. This severely limits the modern negotiator and the available options that could be expected to be produced. Management should assess these often unspoken or subconscious workplace cultures, and strive to create an environment where creative and constructive real conflict is valued and encouraged. What the South African commercial negotiation environment needs right now is better conflict, not less conflict. Companies should train their negotiators to be conflict skilled and conflict competent. Conflict, rightly understood and applied, is an energy, an asset.
- The commercial world shaped by the Covid pandemic shows us new interdependencies, new challenges and new opportunities. Some of these new realities bring about new conflicts, new ways of harming or helping your commercial interests. Some of the old rules and proven strategies have moved from being “obvious” solutions to being outdated, even harmful remnants of a time gone by. Problem assessment and problem solution has become crucial skills, and not always in the ways and methods that worked up to now. The manner in which data is gathered and stored, the latest methods of production, new technologies and legislative developments involving new ways of doing business all must be factored in to our negotiating skills. Paying attention and having a friendly personality is no longer enough to “get by” on, and too much of a reliance on years of experience can simply amount to reliance on outdated methods, and the modern negotiator needs to be willing to reinvent and reskill himself every few months. Here as well an unwillingness or inability to move with these changes will inevitably lead to increased frustration and conflict at the negotiating table. A dynamic flexibility on being teachable, on learning new ways of dealing with these conflicts has become indispensable. An increased efficiency in the skills of sequencing, timing, strategy and creativity are needed, and a simple list of “if this happens then say that” type of negotiating skills is no longer sufficient. Customized production, for instance, has changed the way we negotiate. Price is no longer the only consideration, and a demand for solutions comes with the territory. Disruption has become an expected rule, not a rarity. An intelligent ability to assess, prevent or apply conflicts, on a multitude of simultaneous levels, can be trained and transferred to individuals and teams. What most of the previous popular negotiating systems overlooked was the presence and application of power, and power deals with conflict. So-called win-win solutions often lose sight of this dynamic, and end up being thinly disguised excuses for mediocrity. The influence of conflict should be studied, assessed and harnessed. This means, as we will see, an avoidance of negative, energy-sapping conflict and the correct use of creative conflict. Several models for this exist already, and have been incorporated into our individual and team coaching programs.
- Conflict management as a field of study and practice teaches us the benefits of a concept called by various names, but which in essence amounts to tactical empathy, an ability to put yourself proverbially in the other party’s shoes, to see things from their side. This need to have nothing to do with morals, ethics or being a good person, and everything to do with effective results. By being able to do so the skilled negotiator builds trust, improves the negotiating process and opens creative solutions and results that may not have been visible to the purely commercially motivated eye. This multi-disciplinary approach brings powerful new options to the individual or team negotiations.
- Being skilled at conventionally conflict-related abilities also improves the commercial negotiator’s overall negotiating abilities. Becoming less conflict avoidant, being able to take criticism or rude behaviour from an opponent, the ability to perform well under hostile or manipulative negotiating conditions, reading and neutralizing offensive opponent behaviours and strategies and an ability to see the bigger picture in stressful and unprepared situations are worth so much to the commercial negotiator. Being open and alert to the conflict currents around the negotiating table makes the negotiator more resilient and more efficient when dealing with traditional commercial negotiation tactics like deadlines, “final offers”, budget constraints and the dreaded impasse.
- Being trained in conflict resolution in general and conflict persuasion techniques in particular will teach the commercial negotiator the limits of factual arguments, and the potential and correct use of identity based arguments. These negotiations are becoming increasingly prevalent in purely commercial settings, for instance where the negotiating counterpart takes a strong view of these value-based issues, for example racial values, Covid compliance, gender topics or even just real economic survival concerns. Being skilled in this area will show the negotiator the futility and harm of merely fact-based arguments and the inspiring and creative alternatives available.
- Proper exposure to conflict techniques sensitizes the negotiator to the value of the relationships involved, an important factor that often gets overlooked in commercial negotiations where the pressures of deadlines, production and commission often looms larger than longer-term relationship values. Positional negotiation often rewards stubbornness, brinkmanship and even deception, and this can of course create conflict that harms or destroys important relationships. The opposite of this type of negotiating behaviour is not, as some modern exponents would like us to believe, to be excessively conciliatory or meek at the negotiating table, but to be masters of creative conflict in negotiations. This requires, in turn, a more than superficial understanding of conflict, its causes and triggers.
- According to social psychologists and a series of case studies, cognitive judgments about justice can trigger emotional responses. This example of the impact of conflict management on commercial negotiations show us in a practical manner that people are quite prepared to walk away from commercial transactions that may be in their best interests objectively where such results are perceived by them to be unjust or unfair towards them or even others. This often follows from the unskilful use of threats and processes by the negotiator. The conflict tools of procedural fairness and respectful consideration of people involved find their home at the commercial negotiating table as well. But these conflict concepts lead to wider and more insidious negotiating consequences also. Once these ideas of us being “good” and the other side being “bad” arises at some subtle level, it colours our judgments, moods and levels of distrust, all of which then forms an often unseen foundation upon which we seek to build purely commercial ideas. A growing body of research also supports the converse proposition, and that is that positive emotions can in fact facilitate and enhance negotiations. Our neuro-biological triggers, which the field of conflict studies are now starting to understand and apply, are of great help in commercial negotiations.
- Modern conflict management has moved miles away from the middle-of-the-road, play nice and necessarily neutral ways of old, and commercial negotiations can benefit from some of these transitions. Transferable skills here can include assertiveness, being subjective without being unreasonable and being able to convey goals as joint problem-solving exercises.
Modern commercial negotiations are, in many respects, and for many reasons, even more high-stakes battlegrounds than ever before. Some of the skills and experiences of the previous theatre of negotiations remain valid and relevant, but in meaningful and significant ways these methods have been invalidated or reduced in efficiency by the practical experiences, research and neuroscientific advances in the conflict field.
These advances have changed the way that commercial negotiations should be approached, and it has opened exciting new opportunities and measurable results and projects. Learning how to effectively manage and incorporate emotions into the larger corporate and commercial goals and operational necessities have become a rare and very modern skill. Far from being destructive or irritating obstacles in our negotiations, the correct use of these conflicts can help create and shape the social and commercial world that we seek. The commercial negotiator that incorporates these strategies, thought patterns and techniques in their negotiating arsenal will have a marked advantage in the new business world.
Conflict is a language all of its own. It can tell us so much, if only we stop avoiding it because of its shrill, uncomfortable or painful aspects, it can show us creative possibilities, facts hidden and unused. And who does not appreciate that extra advantage at the negotiating table. A trained and efficient commercial negotiator is an absolute asset to the company, the equivalent of the elite athlete in the sporting world. With this being so, they should have every available cutting edge advantage in order to achieve their goals.
(Andre Vlok can be contacted on email@example.com for a sources index, further reading, conflict mandates and coaching, comment or any further information) June 2022