Family Business Center of Pioneer Valley

Family Business Center of Pioneer Valley

In a Good Negotiation…EVERYBODY Wins!

by Shel Horowitz

If you listen to Robert O'Donnell of the Vermont-based Woodstock Institute for Negotiation, conflict is inevitable--but if you establish the right ground rules, even the most difficult conflicts will start to resolve.

O'Donnell addressed the March gathering of the Family Business Center, held at the newly renamed Clarion (formerly the Inn at Northampton).

His method starts with a seven-point "Collaborative Win Agreement," setting the ground rules. Participants commit to:

  1. Open and honest communication, using normal tone and volume, treating each other with respect and courtesy.
  2. Listening to each other and trying to fully understand the other point of view.
  3. Agreeing not to interrupt.
  4. Sensitivity to the other's "values, history and individuality."
  5. Understanding and expressing their own interests, proposing alternatives that address all interests, and avoiding taking positions.
  6. Making a "free and informed decision" on each issue.
  7. Reaching a fair and constructive resolution.

While at least in theory these points can all be modified, in practice, O'Donnell has designed them to be accepted. If the other party balks, the conversation would be something like:

"You want me to be honest?"

"Well, we could agree to be dishonest, if you'd rather."

And once the negotiations start, all you have to do to regain focus is to say, "I thought we'd agreed to speak in a normal tone and volume" (for example). The other party has no viable alternative but to say, "Yeah, you're right."

O'Donnell cited one mediation contract where he was brought in only to meet a legal requirement before suing--and in two days, "the CEO had given his adversary his private phone number so he could be told immediately if his people failed to carry out" the agreed-upon ground rules. He also pledged to distribute the ground rules to all his employees.

"If you want to change individual behaviors, change the values and belief systems. And the only way is through education; values are not negotiable. You can't impose the change…All success is based upon negotiation." O'Donnell comes from an entrepreneurial family; his father invented Bondo. And he sees every business interaction as a negotiation. "If the fathers of y our company were not good negotiators, you wouldn't be here. You negotiate with customers, employees, suppliers, banks, the insurance company…"

O'Donnell believes that too many negotiations take place using the old, competitive model. "In law, there is a winner. But when they have to factor in the fees, the negative time, document production, the negative energy, the worry--even if you win, what have you won? In negotiations, there are no rules. In a ball game, or in a court, there are rules--and judges to enforce them. In negotiation, it's a big vacuum. I roll out a couple of rules, and people grab" onto them. It all goes back to those fair and reasonable rules, established at the beginning.

Asked how to apply this both with enemies and with family members, O'Donnell reiterated that it can work—and in the case of family members, it's even more important to negotiate fairly, because these are the people we love and care about; the consequences of failure are substantial. And if you can't negotiate with your enemies, you will do battle instead, with no true victor. "One of the toughest things for mediators is to get people to agree to go to a meeting. People are constantly in negotiations that they don't want to be in. If your attorney says this is what you have to do, that's only one possibility. The choice is yours. There's so much to consider; it's not just money."

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