In a negotiation both the listening and the advocating skills are needed to reduce power distance and information asymmetry. Everything in the negotiation is dependent on communication, so even minor improvements here can make a huge difference in outcomes.
Communication negotiation consists of two parts:
Communication – how something is said and done. Effective learning and persuasion.
Process – when something is said and done. Efficient and fair process to maximise value and minimise risks.
Information Asymmetry: The Source of (almost) All Evil
Information asymmetry is the gap of information, and subsequently of understanding, between the parties.
Mediation is assisted communication. It doesn’t solve the matter, but rather ensures the parties in conflict engage in efficient communication process towards agreement or resolution. With proper preparation the success rate can be 90%+.
Information gaps are filled with assumption, leading to the wrong sense of understanding and security. It can also create a power disbalance and a temptation to extract advantages against each other. Information asymmetry operates on two levels:
Perceptions – assumptions of understanding. People experience the world differently, focus on different data (internal and external) and generate different conclusions. Having to get as much information as possible before making every decision is a guaranteed path to madness. People are hardwired to think of their perceptions as the truth. Hence the confirmation bias. Also, data is grouped based on similarities with the previously available data; simplification kills nuances. Human memory is also unreliable, so perceptions may simply be wrong for this reason alone.
Attributions – assumptions of intention. We believe we are expressing ourselves in a way that we are fully understood by others. Even words themselves carry a different meaning to different people.
Intent vs Impact: we know the message but aren’t sure about its impact on others, and vice versa. Basic understandings may vary differently, or a deep understanding of a subject is required – that’s why negotiators practice awareness.
The Dialogue Pattern: From Two- to Three-way Communication
In general, two-way communications are effective, but risk causing a walkie-talkie type of interaction: we lead when talking and are passive when listening. The desire to control who’s talking creates an unnecessary instance of power distance.
Active listening is a commonly recommended practice, but it’s difficult to implement, especially when another party is taking about something boring or irrelevant. It’s only useful if there’s a direction or purpose of listening.
The dialog pattern is not about buzzwords, but rather about asking questions (about something important for the negotiation) and proactive learning (being the goal of listening).
The “three-way communication” emerges when parties take turns asking each other questions (vs just listening to another party’s thoughts on some topic) creating interaction. [MK: I still can’t understand why it’s a three-way communication.]
Ask to Lead and Learn
Asking reconciles perceptions and attributions and promotes a better relationship via the invitation to collaborate. But how much (or how little) to ask?
Learning questions don’t invite “yes/no” as an answer, they create an environment to share more information. They double-check on omissions or narrow generalisations in the substance or relationship negotiations.
Yes, they’re the “W” questions: When, Who, What, Why, and Where.
MK: Learning questions are essential for spotting information manipulations.
MK: If anything, all statements have assumptions, and it’s a duty of a negotiator to challenge these assumptions (whether they’re internal, external or made up). Challenge inflexibility (why can’t we do it?), generalisations (why are all men pigs?) and tell facts from opinions (what makes you think this is obvious?).
Learning questions can be closed (yes/no), but if the answer is unexpected or unclear – should be followed up with other learning questions.
Too many learning questions in a row can serve the annoying role, so unless this is completely warranted by the genuine pursuit for knowledge, being too nosy will not improve the relationship.
Leading questions are usually closed questions with a desired statement inside: they can be accusations, putting words in others’ mouths or are used to counter-argue. Negative leading questions should be avoided. “Have you stopped beating your kids lately?”.
Leading questions, however, drive the process. They are better than using power, because they include the other party in defining how the process will look like.
They can be coupled with legitimacy (would you answer some of my questions before I answer yours, because …?). This actually makes discussions more professional, because leading questions can incorporate the necessary information required to move forward.
Listen: Proactive Learning
Hard bargainers (and many negotiators in general) feel like they need to talk first (controlling, persuading) and repeating their arguments until the other party gets persuaded or gives up.
Another listening obstacle is the inner voice in the listener’s head playing several roles in real time:
judge – attacks the other party’s overall message
defence attorney – seeks counter arguments
victim – justifies one’s position and actions
saviour – wants to end the conversation
daydreamer – thinks of something completely unrelated.
Active listening: capture the emotion (relationship) —> capture and paraphrase the substance message (substance) —> inquire to clarify (communication). The important attributes are initiative, balance (we need to be actively listened, too) and purpose (to ease the internal voices).
Proactive learning allows us to recognise when to turn the learning mode on or off.
It also promotes a process where learning leads to value. Even if the other party disagrees, they’re more likely to search for a resolution and reciprocate if they know they’ve been heard.
Proactive learning involves asking to listen (communication), acknowledging the feeling (relationship) and paraphrasing the message (substance). The objective is increasing initiative, balance and purpose.
Proactive learning starts with thinking of one or a series of questions focusing on the topic of interest. It’s a purposeful activity, so ignoring what the other party says is not an option. Learning questions fall into the following four categories:
Conduct – initiating and leading the conversation towards the intended issue. “Can you tell me more about …”, “Why is it good for me?”, etc.
Confirm – checking if our perception or understanding is correct by paraphrasing the message. “Is my understanding correct that …”, “Can you confirm that …”, etc.
Clarify – eliminate ambiguity and assumptions on what was said or done (applies to both omissions and generalisations). “What do you mean by …”, “Can you help me understand why …”, etc.
Check-in – diagnose the three negotiations to see if they need attention (early warning). “How are we doing so far?”, “Is anything stopping us from …”, etc.
Closed questions are particularly wrong when there’s mistrust or negative emotions are involved.
In some negotiations emotions, if left unchecked, can build up and explode, derailing the process. Recognising and acknowledging emotions behind the words shows understanding and helps defuse the conflict.
Acknowledging the feelings should be done without making conclusions or judgements – the goal is understanding the feeling, not experiencing it. One should be careful with the choice of language, though, because some emotionally loaded words can backfire if another party perceives them as describing weakness or inaptitude. It must always be about the other party, not about oneself.
Paraphrasing the message sends a strong message of understanding (saving time on explaining), while allowing correcting errors in understanding without coming across as boneheaded. It’s useful to take notes of what’s been said to help paraphrase the essence back to the speaker. Paraphrasing usually uncovers other areas requiring discussion and questioning.
It’s tempting to interrupt and counter-argue, but if the goal of listening is paraphrasing, then the risk of not listening and losing bits of information is lowered. Paraphrasing helps capture the other party’s:
Interests and Relationship issues –the key messages.
Alternatives, Commitments and Options – what’s surprising.
Legitimacy – the merit of what’s being said.
Communication – what’s being repeated several times.
The objective of understanding is being able to state the other party’s views as well as they have. “If I understood you correctly, …”, “Correct me if I’m wrong” or a similar confirmation question. Understanding doesn’t mean agreement or giving in to the arguments.
Meta-messages can be sent via intonation (e.g., a stress on each individual word here sends a distinct message: “I believe you should act now”).
Even if the substance is not interesting, there are two possible negotiation consequences of not listening: relationship damage or communication failure. Sometimes not listening is simply not worth it, but the bored party can at least try to buy some time and make themselves comfortable.
… to be continued