Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Compromise should be the last decision, not the first: Joshua N Weiss

There is much more to 'negotiation' than the immediate associations it builds—of conflict, confrontation, win-lose, and the like. Even mutual gain is a possibility if we are creative and flexible enough. Dr Joshua N Weiss busts a few myths

Published: Mar 30, 2023 05:00:08 PM IST
Updated: Mar 30, 2023 05:01:43 PM IST

Compromise should be the last decision, not the first: Joshua N WeissDr. Joshua N. Weiss is a negotiation and conflict resolution expert, author and the co-founder of a negotiation program at Harvard University
Q. ‘Negotiation’ is mostly seen as a scenario of conflict. Is this the right approach?
There is a lot wrong with this perspective. Generally, there are three reasons to negotiate: To create a deal with someone for mutual benefit; to build a long-term relationship; and to resolve conflicts. An important decision is whether it is a one-time scenario or if you will be negotiating with the same person/organisation over the long term. A majority of people in business say the majority of their negotiations are of the long-term variety. If so, you never want to engage in a win-lose approach, which only causes mistrust and challenges in the future. Instead, strive to meet each party’s needs as best as possible. That stated, I do not believe win-win agreements are ‘always’ possible. I believe mutual gains agreements, where each party gets much of what they need, are achievable. The last key to negotiations where relationships are important is to balance short-term goals with building long-term relationship.           

Q. Is compromise inevitable in negotiations?
Compromise is not inevitable, particularly when you get creative. It should be the last decision, not the first. You can always give something up, but wait and see if there are other solutions. Envision an employee who asks for a raise. Her boss replies, “Sorry we are already over budget. Is there anything else?” Imagine she asked for a raise because she had taken on extra work and had a junior title compared to other team members. Had the boss asked “Why do you want a raise or feel it is justifiable?”, he would have learnt this was more about fairness and equity, and been able to meet her needs. They both could have gained if the boss truly understood what his employee valued.
Also, we often struggle to preserve our reputation when we compromise. If you suggest a compromise in a sales negotiation, but they have already assured their boss they would not need to compromise, they cannot agree because they will lose face. Compromise is expedient, but often does not satisfy the interest of the parties involved, thereby challenging their reputation.  

Q. How do cultural differences play out?
Cross-cultural differences are key in negotiation when people from different countries/ethnic groups are involved. For example, Americans tend to be more direct and less emotionally expressive than Indians. What is appropriate to raise and in what ways issues are brought up can easily cause offence without realising it. Negotiators must understand the culture they are working in and how to manage those differences. An American CEO who wanted to do business with a large company in India did not have a lot of leverage because his company was much smaller. So, he decided to make a trip there to demonstrate how much he wanted to work with them. As a result of that act of deference, the company gave him favourable terms and never wielded their power.   

Also read: Treat talent the way you wish to be treated yourself: Roger L Martin   

Q. Are emotions a big ‘no’ at the negotiation table?
The thinking on this has changed in the US. We have learnt that emotions are going to play a role no matter what we do. Humans are logical and emotional beings and to deny one simply does not work. We often find that it gets problematic when we try to suppress emotions. Instead, if we bring them into the process in an ‘emotionally intelligent’ way, we have our emotions with control and are aware of them. Consider this. If you tell me you are frustrated with how a negotiation process is going, then I can do something about it. However, if your frustration is never articulated, I will only see disconcerting signs, but not know the reason. This makes the process more likely to fail. If we see emotions as a natural part of the process, we need not be afraid of them. We should see them as a guide to keeping a negotiation moving in a productive direction.

Q. Is there a particular downside to wired negotiations?
There is both a downside and an upside. To avoid the downside, you need to know the pitfalls of each medium.  
Video conferencing is most preferable because you do not lose the non-verbal cues you do over the phone or via email. Some things to keep in mind are the possibility that you do not know who might be out of camera view or what security is in place. Telephone negotiations are helpful because you can tell a lot from voice inflection and tone. You listen more carefully because you are not focussed on non-verbal cues as well.

In email negotiations, there are quite a few downsides. People focus more on positions instead of interests and do not get as creative as they should. There is also the pervasive problem of misinterpretation given all you have to work with is the written word. Conversely, there is also an important upside. Many are uncomfortable with in-person negotiation—sitting across from another party causes a lot of anxiety. Email also gives us the opportunity to think more carefully and not feel as though we have to respond in the moment, which often leads to mistakes.

Try to think of the mediums in a sequence. I often start out negotiating via email and if it is going well, I continue. If I notice the medium might be a problem, I do not hesitate to move to the phone or video conference.

Also read: Innovation has no borders, no owners: Alex Goryachev

Q. Three must-have skills to be an effective negotiator…
First, an open and creative/problem-solving mind. The best negotiators look at a problem from different angles and deploy problem-solving to reach the best agreements. Imagine you are going into a job negotiation. Obviously you want to think about salary, but think more creatively. If they cannot meet your salary needs, can they codify a progression of increases over the first few years? And what else is important? Perhaps telecommuting is attractive since it would take you 45 minutes to get to office. Maybe a flexible schedule has value because you have to pick your kids up at day care. Finally, you have a desire to climb up the ladder. What kind of training can they commit to as part of the employment relationship?       
Second is the ability to adapt and be flexible. In negotiation, we are always working with incomplete information. As the process unfolds, we learn more about what is really important to the other negotiator and what is possible. To learn those things, we have to take an adaptable and flexible approach—one where we respond to new information and think about how to manage it most effectively.   
Finally, focus on interests and not positions. In negotiation, we often talk about positions (what we want), but we really need to focus on interests (why we want those things). Interests are the key to negotiation and come in two buckets, tangible and intangible. Tangible interests are those we can touch like land or money. Intangible interests are things we cannot touch, but are very important, such as our need to save face or to be recognised for a job well done. These interests are what really drive us and are often hidden, but reveal themselves as the process goes on and some trust is built.

Dr Joshua N Weiss is co-founder of the Global Negotiation Initiative at Harvard University and a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Negotiation Project. He is also director of the MS in Leadership and Negotiation at Bay Path University and author of The Book of Real- World Negotiations

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