Negotiate, Collaborate: 3

by Christopher Lovejoy on February 14, 2020

Since the dawn of human consciousness, humans have been compelled to satisfy two primal urges: the urge to feel safe and secure when a lack or loss of safety and security became a concern, and the urge to feel in control whenever a lack or loss of control became an issue.

Today, in view of these two primitive needs, the objective of any effective communication ~ in life or love, at work or play ~ is simply this: to listen, and not just to listen, but to listen intently, to demonstrate empathy with a sincere desire to understand a different point of view.

Without this emotional intelligence, no meaningful and productive negotiation is possible. Such intelligence, however, is extraordinarily difficult to come by for no other reason than that two states of mind ~ confusion and suspicion ~ are so closely interwoven in the primitive mind.

Clarity of mind does not arouse suspicion like confusion does. If, in a negotiation, you display confusion in a tense and difficult moment, could the parties to this negotiation honestly say “regardless, we trust your judgment” or “regardless, we trust your intention”? Not very likely.

If you’re confused in a tense and difficult moment, could you honestly say “I am competent in this moment and therefore my judgment can be trusted”? Likewise, if you appear to be confused in a tense and difficult moment, could you honestly say “you can trust my intention”?

In light of these uncomfortable questions, it’s one thing to get clear, quite another to stay clear.

Confusion, however, is ubiquitous and inevitable, running like a dark undercurrent through the daily affairs of humanity: inwardly evident and outwardly manifest, it comes with the territory of being imperfectly human, learning, growing, living, striving, negotiating, and navigating in an imperfect world, for without the perception of imperfection, how could anyone ever know the feeling of perfection amidst the confusion and the suspicion it engenders?

In a tense and difficult moment, the basic intent of a keen negotiator is to feel and to name the confusion without getting sidelined by it ~ to communicate understanding without conceding anything at all about what has happened, or anything at all about what is happening now.

With this advice, we have two ridiculously powerful ways to make good on this intent.

The first is to craft messages for the “I” designed to condition behavior and draw lines in the sand, letting you take a step back from reactive dynamics. The statement that conveys this message comes in three parts: (1) “When you [state counterproductive behavior or action], (2) I feel / it seems that … [fill in the blank], (3) because [say why this behavior or action poses a problem].”

example 1

“when you … raise your voice like that,
I feel … powerless to share my point of view
because … I can hardly hear myself think”

example 2

“when you … get to talking fast and furious like that,
I feel … really confused about what’s happening with us
because … I’m getting too many messages at once”

example 3

“when you … insist on driving home your point,
I feel … unable to move this conversation forward
because … there’s no room for me to maneuver”

example 4

“when you … behave like you’re the only one who matters
I feel … pressured into putting aside my own needs and interests
because … it seems like I have no say in how things go”

note 1: I inserted pauses to highlight message structure
note 2: such pauses, however, might actually be effective

Powerful stuff, but only if we practice and apply what might seem at first to be contrived messages. In view of these examples, I invite you to craft some of your own, based on your own experience, not only to get good at crafting them, but to prepare for similar experiences to come.

The second way to make good on the intent to feel and name the confusion (or any emotion) is to put out brief hypothetical messages ~ verbal observations that note states of mind or emotions displayed. In observing a display of confusion in another, for example, one might say, without making assumptions, “it looks/sounds/seems like … you’re feeling confused about something.”

In any negotiation with life or love, assumptions like “I understand” are the first steps towards compromise ~ and the best negotiators rarely if ever compromise. Instead, they form hypotheses (it looks/sounds/seems like …) and test them to find out if they’re true. If they think something is a possibility, they’ll test it. They don’t bypass matters just because they’re afraid of inquiry.

Other common examples that employ hypotheticals include the following …

“It looks/sounds/seems like … you’re feeling frustrated about something.”

“It looks/sounds/seems like … you’re feeling really scared about something.”

“It looks/sounds/seems like … you’re feeling suspicious about something.”

Hypotheticals can also be applied delicately to deeper, less apparent emotions, like guilt or shame, sorrow or grief, anguish or despair. You note the pain and you name the pain to call out the pain from a distance, while walking a fine line between feeling it and calling it out.

Note also that these hypothetical labels can be embedded in “I” messages, as in example 4 above: “it seems like I have no say in how things go.” A label like this one “draws a line in the sand” without sounding defensive, inviting further comment to keep the conversation going.

Such hypothetical labels make no assumptions, while simultaneously calling out for explanations, which further clarifies matters and keeps the conversation going in the direction of gathering more information and uncovering hidden variables in the negotiation. Again, powerful stuff.

A common assumption is that if you call attention to a negative dynamic, this will feed it, but the research does not bear this out. Rather, the research indicates that when you call out a negative dynamic, it tends to get diffused or defused. In a crisis, this is important to know.

“I” messages that sidestep the accusatory “you” and labels that present probing hypotheticals are extremely useful for gathering information about dynamics, like confusion, or any strong emotion that seems out of place, triggered unexpectedly in the course of a negotiation.

That is to say, in the course of any problematic interaction, anywhere, anywhen.

In cultivating the fine art of stealth with a sense of ruthlessness without harshness, with a sense of cunning without cruelty, with a sense of patience without negligence, and with a sense of sweetness without foolishness, one is well placed to dodge confusion and suspicion.

As always, aim impeccably to say or do what feels appropriate to the moment.


the “secret” behind every negotiation
is to let the other side have your way

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