Category Archives: Negotiation
Active listening can be difficult for four main reasons. One is force of habit. Many people follow the same pattern in every interaction. It varies culturally, but one common pattern for negotiators in the US is to start nice, go through the list of issues, get testy, withdraw and sulk, come back reluctantly, then reach agreement. People are so stuck in their pattern there is no room to listen. Another is distraction from our own internal chatter and moment to moment physical discomforts – the psychologists use the term “internal distractors.” The third is difficulty in connecting with others, which is sometimes a skill that has not been learned and sometimes, as with people on the autistic spectrum, a biological difficulty. The fourth is learning to listen without judging. Most people can learn to do better.
For many people, learning to quiet and bypass internal distractors is a very powerful tool. Any form of meditation will help with the sound of our own voices in our heads, which then helps with listening. Accepting one’s own physical discomfort in the process also helps with the judging bit. That represents at least two of the four roadblocks to listening.
There is also a very easy qigong exercise to start building your potential. It is called zhan zhuang, or standing practice. For the first position, take your shoes off and stand up. Keep your arms out from your body slightly. Feel a weight pulling at your tailbone, and lightness in the crown of your head like a balloon is pulling it upward. Breathe naturally with your diaphragm, so that you can feel your stomach rising and falling with each breath. Now just stand there. Feel the alignment of your body and any other internal sensations that come to you. Start with a minute or two at a time. Work your way up. When you get to five minutes you will start to see results. 20 minutes is a good goal, since we naturally seem to move in 20-minute cycles of concentration. This position is called Wu Ji, a term from Daoist theology referring to the formless void before creation from which the world ultimately flows – kind of like the “darkness on the face of the waters” from the book of Genesis. While one can get mystical about this exercise, it is immensely practical, both in terms of health benefits (balance, strength, alignment, reducing tension, even some minimal cardio) and increasing the ability to listen. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, it even increases the amount of qi available to you. For those readers looking for kung fu tactics, standing practice is the fundamental exercise for developing internal strength in taiji and certain other internal martial arts. All the fancy hand-waving in the world does no good without the strength to back it up.
There are many further levels of zhan zhuang, but this one is a good start. Give it a try. Whether your goal is to be a better martial artist, mediator, arbitrator or negotiator, listening is a critical skill, and if you can get physical benefits out of the learning process, so much the better.
In the first few hours of basic mediation training, beginning students are exposed to a concept called “active listening.” It involves really listening, letting people know that you are hearing them without judging. Since one of the drivers of conflict can be people’s sense that they are not being heard, addressing that need is a fundamental element of conflict resolution.
Therapists are good at it. Many lawyers have trouble, since they are more used to talking than listening. While some people do have an innate talent for listening well, most people can learn how to listen better with practice.
Active listening dovetails very nicely with a set of skills from taiji (or t’ai chi, depending on how the word is Romanized). As you learn this complicated style, you also learn to listen to your own body to get the subtle internal movements right. Eventually, you learn to correct many of your own errors, because if you keep certain principles in mind mistakes simply feel wrong. Then, when you begin the two-person exercise called Push Hands, you learn to listen with your body to the other person’s movements. One of the Chinese words for listening is tingdong, literally meaning “to hear and to understand.” It does not come naturally, any more than active listening does to the new mediator, but one of the great health benefits of taiji is that it automatically carries over to other activities. After enough practice, you can even feel if you are breathing and walking wrong.
In a non-physical conflict, you can also learn to listen at a level beyond your ears. Normally, both the signal and the reception may be at an unconscious level. However, if you learn to listen to your own sensations that might otherwise be intellectualized or sensed as a random flux of hormones, if you learn to filter out internal noise, you might be able to pick up on others’ agitation and behavior patterns. Surprisingly, you might even be able to tell when people respond to signals you are telegraphing.
Next post, I’ll tell you how to use a qigong exercise to jump start your active listening.
As often happens, I made a mistake during sparring practice. As my opponent’s speed increased, I became anxious, not so much that my reaction times slowed but enough that my vision started narrowing down – a normal response worsened by my the fact that my visual attention is subpar to start with. It meant that I was aware of a left punch coming in, but lost track of the right. I intercepted and redirected the left with my right arm, then thinking all was clear I fired off from my left. You can guess where this led. I had overcommitted to a high left punch and couldn’t get my arm down in time to stop my unprotected left ribs from getting slammed.
It may be surprising for those of you who have never studied martial arts, but preparing to fight is not the main reason I train. Most of us are much more likely to do battle with the forces of age and time than to get in a bar fight (at least by my age!). There is also a Zenlike quality about losing yourself in the sensations of your body while detaching your ego from the process (not surprising, since Zen migrated to Japan from Shaolin, where it is called “Chan”). Still, it can be instructive for interacting in other contexts. “Overcommitment” isn’t just a dating mistake.
At the first level, overcommitment is about disclosure. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” is what happens after we find out as much as possible about what “yours” is. Only very rarely will we want to say early on in a negotiation, “this is as far as I will go,” or, “here is everything behind my decision, and if it makes sense you can tell me everything behind your decision.”
The next level amplifies on the first. Don’t give up too much in discussion, if you are unsure whether you may need to hold some of it in reserve to trade for something else. That is like sticking your arm out too far and leaving your flank exposed.
A third level is not to commit while you’re losing focus. If you are sparring, that may mean disengaging for a moment before you strike. If you are in negotiation, it may mean taking a moment for a bathroom break to clear your head with a cold splash of water on your face. If your team is with you, it may mean taking a break to talk amongst yourselves, so you can make sure your perspective is accurate. Otherwise, you run the risk of reaching out before you see that hidden punch coming in.
The key to all this, the way to know if you are overcommitting, is to know where your counterparty is. Keep your vision broad. It may be helpful preparation to theorize about where you want to take a conversation, but ultimately your success in the negotiation depends on your ability to perceive as much as possible the full scope of what your counterparty is thinking. You have to focus on his tactic of the moment enough to respond – that would be the left hook in the story – but you should always keep everyone’s ultimate goals in mind, as much as you can figure them out, in order to see the big picture and not step too far into an untenable position.
Keep your focus, and don’t overcommit.
I love tai chi (taiji). Learning the full Yang style form takes about a year. If one rushes through, it is easy to get confused.
Once you learn the form, it is easy to get lost in the moving meditation of the movements. There are layers upon layers of complexity, so you can sink without limit into the detail. Some people have said that tai chi takes more than one lifetime to learn. There are even hidden codes in the movements that bring the form to life in strange and unexpected ways. Some things are not for the Internet, though!
In application – for tai chi, the great ultimate, is a martial art – the goal of the Yang style is to be “a needle wrapped in cotton.” The motion is soft and flowing, yielding gently like a ball of cotton, but with cold, hard steel on the inside. The practitioner yields to a push or a punch, making the pusher or puncher feel like he is moving against air, then suddenly turns the force around into a shock that knocks the other party off his feet. It is hard to learn to yield. Even though I’ve been at it for years, I still need a decade or two more practice before I really get it.
If you work at it enough, you can bring this same skill set to negotiation, even though our instinct is aggression. Seem to yield, then push back just at the right time. Redirect the complaints and at the last second turn them around. Embrace the ebb and flow of the conversation. Walk softly with your strength and have the confidence not to have to wave it around. This can be devastatingly effective, regardless of the approach your counterparty is taking. The tai chi negotiator seems to exert less effort, but still often gets her way.
Even if you are in a more formal dispute resolution setting, like an arbitration or litigation, you can still be a needle wrapped in cotton. The litigator who goes full bore in every contact with the judge may have a different reception than his calm opponent who strikes carefully at the important points and does not feel the need to respond to every minor argument. The party in mediation seems to go with the flow, which somehow brings everyone to his point of view. The tai chi arbitrator effortlessly redirects his opponent’s charges and therefore has much less flack to wade through in order to get to his point. He also, seemingly without effort, spends less time filtering the emotional content of the presentation as his opponent. It makes him more credible.
I’ll be writing much more about tai chi, ba gua and other “internal” practices. In the meantime, remember: don’t engage when you don’t have to. Redirect the attack.
Negotiation has two goals: convincing the other party to accept your position and convincing them that you will follow through. Many pixels have been spilled over persuasive technique, interest-based negotiation and the like. In most business negotiation, though, trust is also an issue. How do you convey the sincerity and trustworthiness that is needed to make any kind of agreement stick? People generally will not enter into an agreement with someone they do not trust to live up to their end of the bargain, especially if the agreement is in settlement of an argument. The difficult part is finding a way that works for both parties.
In martial arts terms, the negotiating technique is like the way you wave around your hands and feet. It is the outer form of persuasion, which is important but not sufficient. Knowing how to make the persuasion meaningful is the equivalent of packing power in your punch. You can do it through brute strength (the equivalent of, “You will agree to my terms or else”) or through internal power moves that vary with the technique being applied (“I know this point is important to you”).
On the one hand, it means you have to listen to the other party to try to tell how to get the message through. That can be difficult enough, like looking for an opening to attack. Then you have to find a way to come across as sincere, and not just in the way of a con man that offers sincerity without substance. Some people are comfortable with overt emotional appeals. When other people try that, it seems phony and reduces credibility. Some people can express clear, logical, persuasive arguments. When other people try that, it sounds like a middle school debate team. Some people consciously modulate their facial expression, body language and even breathing. Others seem uncomfortable in their skin when they try that, especially if they try it in a cross-cultural setting in which each party uses different cues. Sometimes, conveying trust means setting up backstops, like escrows or penalties, so your counterparty believes you will follow through.
In martial arts, the rubber meets the road at the point of physical contact between you and your counterpart. After contact, if there’s no power, there’s no effect. In negotiation, the force of the impact is in the tone as much as the message. Most of the time, you will do well if you can find a way to convey a cooperative, trustworthy tone that works for you and connects with your counterparty.
Years ago, I found myself negotiating a minor piece of a very large transaction between two phone companies. I had represented one of the phone companies before, in the role of a kind but gentle 800 pound gorilla. Negotiation with the other phone company revealed what it was like for two gorillas to interact. Reasonable requests were met with a rather rude, “No. What’s your next point?” It was only when I countered with a perplexed, “Gee, that’s not very constructive,” followed by an awkward silence, that my counterpart felt socially forced to start giving explanations. Once he felt he had to move from staking out a position to stating his interests, we were able to make progress.
In his book The Art Of Shaolin Kung Fu, Wong Kiew Kit lists a number of strategies and tactics. One of them is, “If an opponent is strong, enter from the side; if he or she is weak, enter from the front.” If you find yourself in a physical contest with someone much larger than you, it is difficult to meet him head-on. Instead, duck and weave to the side and go for the ribs, the side of the head or even the back. The flipside is that if you are much larger than your opponent, you should beware his sideswipes if you barrel over him.
If you’re sitting across the table from someone, similar rules apply. Someone with a wad of cash to spend, like a lead investor or a bank with an unalterable loan agreement, can take the role of the 1,000 pound gorilla. She doesn’t have to be rude about it, but can say, “I’m sorry. This is the way we do things. There is no flexibility on that.”
If you are met with the big gorilla response, what do you do? Unless you have the power and desire to threaten to walk away from the table, and unless your counterpart really cares if you walk away, you can’t attack head on and throw down the gauntlet. That would be entering from the front, as if your opponent were weak. The only thing you can do is enter from the side, like my conversation with the phone company lawyer: a shove from the side, then stepping back as he fell into his imbalance. Depending on the situation, you can focus your counterpart’s attention elsewhere to draw out an explanation eliciting his real interest, in which case you can then try to seek a constructive compromise. You can put a pin in the difficult topic and move off to something related, then circle back. Then again, if the point is ancillary you can accept it and move on to the next one. The latter course would be sidestepping your counterpart’s implicit threat to walk away unless he gets his way.
In sum, if you are the big gorilla, there may be important points you just do not need to negotiate. If your position is not so strong, consider an indirect approach to get what you really want. As a mediator, help one or both of the parties redirect their conflict. In an ideal world, each will feel he has encountered a strong opponent, attacked from the side, and won.