Win/Lose is for Losers

by Shel Horowitz

If the often-combative world of middle school can respond to alternative dispute resolution, surely it can work in business negotiation. Lawrence Susskind, 22-time author, Director of the Public Disputes Program at Harvard, and creator of the Workable Peace Program, mediation training for middle and high school students,, brought his message about solving conflict to the Family Business Center’s December gathering.

In or out of business, Susskind’s goal is to help clients find solutions where ” everyone says yeah, I like that.”  If that attempt fails, the “loser” will be “grumbling and looking for revenge the next time. It’s not just producing a barely acceptable deal, but a consensus in which both sides say, ‘I can support that.’”

A critical piece: “Negotiate as if the relationship matters. When you negotiate with somebody you care about, you negotiate at least a little bit differently. I might not insist in quite as obstreperous way because I know what it’ll do to the negotiation part.

Another critical component is to reframe the negotiation away from zero-sum, I-win-you-lose approaches so that “we both could come out ahead.

“We studied thousands of actual negotiations, and we watched people frame it as win-lose, and we could easily think of what to do to reframe it. They missed opportunities to create value. It’s better to divide a big pie than a small pie. It’s more likely that you’ll get a bigger piece.”

And remember to keep listening, to stay focused on how you both can benefit.

In an actual negotiation, it might look something like this three-step process:

Step 1. When other person demands 100 [percent], ask why. “What need or interest of yours is met by that, and how else can I help you satisfy that interest? Tell me what’s behind that position, that demand, and give me a chance to see what I can do, and we can create value.”

There’s no symmetry. The burden is on you.

2. “Let me tell you what my interest is. What’s most important to me is making an agreement today, implement in the next two weeks, payment made in next 30 days, in which the quality of the work is paramount and we both end up wanting to work together in the future. I’d like to solve this in a way that lets us work together in the future.

“Since you’re not telling me, let me guess your interests. All you care about is price, right?”

Now, your question forces them to say, “No, I am concerned about timing, about how this sets us up for the future, and it would matter if you get me in to other people.”

3. Creating value requires playing ‘what if.’ “What if—I’m not committing, just exploring—I gave you the package that was the same price as last time for the same work, but a promise to take larger volume over several years plus a commitment to give you access to other partners I have access to, plus an agreement to met and review if there’s any problem? What if I lowered the price a little but didn’t have to pay you for six months?”

I’m packaging different elements in a what-if that respond to what I think is their underlying demand. The package in ‘what if’ isn’t a commitment, and one way to make it clear is to put more than one package forward. You create value by packaging. They thought they were just coming to talk about price, but you enriched the agenda because you thought of some things you could do at low cost to you but big benefit to them. You’re not committing, you’re exploring.

“When people are confrontational, they stop listening and think about the next thing they’re going to say, and they lose sight of what’s going on.” For this reason, it’s often helpful to bring in an outsider—what Susskind calls “an experienced neutral”—who can keep the discussion targeted to what both parties want to achieve, and prevent deterioration by reframing demands and questions, or probing into their hidden meaning. The outside facilitator can keep things positively focused on mutually desired outcomes, and steer the conversation away form the shoals of accusatory language and other traps.

This may be a mindset shift; the goal is not compromise. Rather, you want to “leave all parties with more than what each would get if there’s no deal. If I get you more than your next-best option, you’re going to say yes. When I have something you want and trade it for something you have and I want, that’s not compromise.”

For the negotiating relationship to work, of course, both sides have to have a level of trust, and Susskind condenses the essence of trust-building into just two commands:

1. Say what you mean. Got bad news? Deliver it, don’t sugar-coat it. Softening the blow undermines trust.

2. Mean what you say. Don’t make a commitment unless you can deliver.

I’m not arguing you should be trusting, but that you should be trustworthy.

And if you get locked in a battle over specific issues—I’m suggesting there’s a meta level, you need to get behind the positions you’ve both taken, and find out the underlying concerns before you try to solve the problem. If they don’t trust each other, the most elegant solution will fall apart.

Finally, he says, “Consensus is not unanimity, but overwhelming agreement to the question, ‘can you live with that?’ After everyone has talked and someone has framed the talk. And if someone can’t, they’re obliged to explain why, and to suggest the modification that would make it acceptable. Unanimity is an invitation to blackmail. And you have overwhelming agreement in response to a way of dealing with the problem that’s a product of hearing people try to solve it, and the obligation of the group is to listen to those who are not happy. And people need to know, if we can’t reach consensus there’s no agreement.