We negotiate multiple times every day. It is at the core of our family and work life. We do it when we are deciding who will work on a project and when it is due. We do it when we decide who will clear the table or take the kids to soccer. And, of course, once in a blue moon, we do what we all consider to be negotiation—asking for a raise. But, if you ask a group of people if they consider themselves to be good negotiators, only a few will raise their hands; and if you then ask them if they enjoy negotiating, half of those hands drop.

So, we do it all day long, but few of us think we are any good at it, and even fewer enjoy it. This can’t be good.

When we want to see examples of successful negotiation, where do we go? One universal experience is going to buy a car. Car buying is a good example of a certain kind of negotiation—do your research, keep your bottom line to yourself, look tough and be willing to walk out of the showroom without a deal—but is that the best example for negotiating at home and at work? No, and here’s why. The reason that a hardball, car buying example is not appropriate is simple: When we finish the negotiation with the car salesperson, we don’t care about his/her feelings. When the deal is done, we simply walk out of the showroom. At work and at home, this is not true. These are relationships that must be built, improved and maintained. That makes negotiation much, much more difficult.

So how do we negotiate effectively while maintaining important relationships? Happily, there are numerous answers to that question, but given the space allotment here, I will describe only two. The first is that numerous negotiating strategies other than “hardball,” exist, and the second answer is that it is possible to separate the problem, or what is being negotiated, from the people. The following chart illustrates five different strategies that might be pursued:

Adapted from the work of Mary Rowe, MIT Ombudsperson and Adjunct Professor of Negotiation and Conflict Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management

The first thing you will notice is that “Competition: Hardball” is only one of many strategies. You will also notice that “Avoidance” is one of the strategies. Avoidance is a negotiation option because all fights are not worth the effort. In fact, most are probably not worth it. So the first question to ask yourself should always be: “Do I have a dog in this fight?” Or, “If I win the negotiation, is it worth the cost to the relationship?”

The second thing is that of the five strategies, only the hardball approach holds the possibility of damaging relationships. The trick is determining when hardball is worth it, and when another strategy might make more sense. If you go in knowing that compromising—or splitting the difference might be successful enough—then you don’t need to put any relationship in jeopardy. To an even greater extent, accommodation may not only preserve a relationship, it could make it stronger. If presented correctly, it might even make your counterpart feel that they “owe you one.”

This leaves the most intriguing box: “Collaboration.” Many people would not even consider collaboration to be a form of negotiation, but, in fact, it might be the highest form. It is also the most difficult to explain, let alone do. Maybe in a later column I can focus on collaboration, but in the meantime, the classic work on it is authored by William Ury and Roger Fisher, titled “Getting To Yes.” At the core of collaboration as a strategy: Getting beyond negotiating positions to the broader interests that they represent. Like I said, it gets complicated.

So what do you do when playing hardball is unavoidable, but the relationship is important? In that situation you do what Gene Krantz, the NASA flight director, said during the rescue of Apollo XIII: “Work the problem, people, work the problem.”  In other words, find a way to focus on the problem without making it personal. In the language of William Ury, “Be hard on the problem and soft on the people.” It is a difficult skill, but it works in many situations.

When a relationship really matters to you, then, what’s the best way to approach a negotiation? Figure out when competitive negotiation is really necessary, and be kind in the process—it won’t weaken your position.

  • Robert Mueller, M.Div. Ed.M. Ed.D.

    Robert Mueller, M.Div. Ed.M. Ed.D., is an organizational effectiveness consultant and director of the MBA program and Assistant Professor of Pharmaceutical Healthcare and Business at the Mayes College of Healthcare Business and Policy, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.


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