Negotiation Framework: Focus on Interests

Negotiations often stall when people focus on interests:

I’m willing to pay $10,000. No, it will cost $15,000.
I need it done by Monday. That’s impossible, we can’t have it ready until Wednesday.

While such interchanges are common during preliminary negotiation discussions, managers must prevent this initial posturing from becoming polarized. When such positions are stated, attacked, and then defended, each party figuratively begins to draw a line he or she will not cross during a negotiation. This line creates a win/lose scenario in which someone has to lose by crossing the line in order to reach an agreement. As such, the negotiations can become a war of wills, with concessions being seen as a loss of face.

Focus on Interests

The key is to focus on interests that are behind your positions (what you are trying to achieve) and separate these goals from your ego as best you can. Not only should you be focused on your own interests, but you should try to identify the interests of the other party. Ask why it will cost so much or why it can’t be done by Monday. At the same time, make your own interests come alive. Don’t just say that it is critical that it be done by Monday; explain what will happen if it isn’t done by Monday.

Sometimes when the true interests of both parties are revealed, there is no basis for a negotiation conflict.

Take, for example, the Monday versus Wednesday argument. This argument could apply to a scenario involving a project manager and the production manager of a small, local firm that was contracted to produce prototypes of a new generation of computer mouse.

The project manager needs the prototypes on Monday to demonstrate to a users’ focus group. The production manager said it would be impossible. The project manager said this would be embarrassing because marketing had spent a lot of time and effort setting up this demonstration.

The production manager again denied the request and added that he already had to schedule overtime to meet the Wednesday delivery date.

However, when the project manager revealed that the purpose of the focus group was to gauge consumers’ reactions to the color and shape of the new devices, not the finished product, the conflict disappeared. The production manager told the project manager that she could pick up the samples today if she wanted because production had an excess supply of shells.

When you focus on interests, it is important to practice the communication habit:

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

This involves what Stephen Covey calls empathetic listening, which allows a person to fully understand another person’s frame of reference—not only what that person is saying but also how he or she feels. Covey asserts that people have an inherent need to be understood. He goes on to observe that satisfied needs do not motivate human behavior, only unsatisfied needs do. People try to go to sleep when they are tired, not when they are rested.

The key point is that until people believe they are being understood, they will repeat their points and reformulate their arguments. If, on the other hand, you satisfy this need by seeking first to understand, then the other party is free to understand your interests and focus directly on the issues at hand. Seeking to understand requires discipline and compassion.

Instead of responding to the other person by asserting your agenda, respond by summarizing both the facts and feelings behind what the other person has said and checking the accuracy of comprehension.

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