The challenge with conflict negotiations is that more often than not you’re emotionally involved, which is why many companies and agencies employ professionally-trained facilitators to help navigate the process and resolve disputes. Successfully negotiating resolution to conflict depends on the underlying causes. If it is a clash of personalities that requires a different approach than an intentional ethical violation, for example. Consequently the first thing you’ll need to do if you are the independent party brought in to resolve things is to interview stakeholders and try to ascertain what truly happened. If you find yourself in a situation where you may be the cause or the aggrieved party and have to take care of things yourself you will still want to do as much fact finding as feasible before working toward resolution.
Keep in mind that perception is reality so just because something isn’t true doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter to the other party. But, misperceptions can be cleared up. For example, I used to start work at 6:00 AM on the West Coast when I’d have several meetings with folks on the East Coast. Two or three hours later, whenever my schedule opened up, I would go out, say good morning to my team, making sure I was visible for a while so that folks could tell me if they had something urgent on their minds or ask for help. They called that “management by walking around” in business school. I saw it as being there for the team (as opposed to hiding in my office which was around the corner from where they sat). One of my employees, however, saw it differently. She thought I was checking to see if everyone was at their desk working, a thought which never even crossed my mind. If I didn’t trust the team I never would have hired (or retained) them. That misperception wasn’t particularly hard to correct, but it did cause morale issues for a short while until I realized what was going on.
Armed with whatever background information you are able uncover, you can formulate a strategy for dealing with the disagreement in a way that will keep it from reoccurring. When you speak to the parties, especially when you have a vested interest in the outcome, it is vital to keep your cool and focus on behaviors rather than making things personal. Folks who feel threatened or insulted stop listening, often becoming defensive or aggressive and poised for (verbal or physical) battle. In fact, when someone is losing an argument they virtually always take things personal. At that point the disagreement is no longer about the action or error, often turning to animus that is not easily resolved.
You can feign anger on the job, but it’s a tactic that should rarely (as in no more than once every couple years) be used and then only for special purposes. If folks think you’re bound to blow up at them it will undermine their trust and your career. If you’re actually angry, walk away and re-approach the subject when you’re in a better mood. Saying something along the lines of “I’m having an emotional reaction to this” can both help you calm down as well as have a good reason for tabling the conversation. The only time that feigned anger is appropriate is when you’re dealing with an ethical breach or similarly serious event. It takes years build up an emotional bank account with those around you, yet in seconds you can withdraw all the credit you have gained if you act out inappropriately.
Conflict negotiation can be tough, but it’s also a time to pull out your bag of “dirty tricks,” so to speak. There are a variety of tactics that are often used by conmen and criminals for nefarious purposes that, when turned to a more positive intent, are appropriate in a professional setting. This includes things like forced teaming, coopting, and loansharking. Forced teaming is tactical use of the word “we.” Instead of “I have a problem,” say “We have a problem.” It shows that you’re in it together, both vested in the problem as well as the outcome. It feels inclusive too. Coopting is designed to get other people on your side before they’ve determined what they really think about you. If you can turn critics into advocates, which takes a bit of social and communication skills, you strengthen your position, gather allies, and get help in resolving the issue. If helps if you focus on the superordinate goal of helping the business so that it doesn’t come across as self-aggrandizing. Loansharking is typically done by offering small favors designed to evoke feelings of indebtedness in others. Yeah, it’s cheesy, but even simple stuff like getting coffee for the other person every so often, can make a difference in their feelings toward you. Those may appear to be shallow tactics, but they are highly effective psychologically, especially when you are well-intentioned.
Some final thoughts:
No matter what you’re negotiating begin by keeping the endgame in mind. Know your goal, know your boundaries (non-negotiables), and stay on track. The better you know the other party, what’s urgent and imperative to them, what they need, and how they are compensated or measured, the better. Know yourself and your objectives so that you can stay on track too. Creativity is good. There’s more than one appropriate way to solve most anything, but guard against an agreement that unduly alters what you were originally aiming at. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment, especially if the other party is a very experienced negotiator and more than a little manipulative. If in doubt, sleep on it before agreeing to any final resolution.
Make sure you’re talking with someone empowered to make a decision before you get started. There’s no point in wasting your time otherwise, so if you discover you’re dealing with the wrong people escalate. Or play them off against each other, though that’s tough if you’re not a professional and not a game that most folks ought to play save in special circumstances.
Negotiation is more about communication than anything else, so you will need to exercise active listening skills throughout the process. Silence can be your friend, as the other party will often feel compelled to fill it, oftentimes giving away more than intended. Ask before you assert, aim for clarity and cooperation, pay attention to non-verbals to see if it’s working, and don’t hesitate to course-correct as needed (so long as you don’t stray from your goals, of course) The best deals are those in which both parties find a win. Be courteous, patient, and respectful, but always stay within the parameters you decided before you got started.
About the author:
Lawrence Kane is a senior leader at a Fortune 50 corporation where he is responsible for IT infrastructure strategy and sourcing management. He saved the company well over $2.1B by hiring, training, and developing a high-performance team that creates sourcing strategies, improves processes, negotiates contracts, and benchmarks internal and external supplier performance. A bestselling author of more than a dozen books, he has also worked as a business technology instructor, martial arts teacher, and security supervisor.