Negotiations are about trying to find outcomes that settle more than one person’s or party’s needs and goals.
The most human thing is to shy away from conflict; fleeing from a difficult situation is much easier than staying to solve one.
Yet, as Chris Voss reminds us, negotiations are an inherent part of life and by having a a negotiation mindset can really help us to live a more fulfilling life.
In Never Split The Difference, Chris Voss recommends that there are two key issues that we need to pay attention to: 1) understanding the value of Black Swans of information and 2) knowing how and what to ask.
Black Swans of information
Black Swans are pieces of information that we don’t even know exist, which change the dynamics of the negotiation if you have them.
Finding these “unknown unknowns” aka Black Swans is like being a detective: finding hidden information that opens up a window into your counterpart’s aspirations and goals that gives you a better leverage to make decisions.
For example, sometimes reaching out to someone and having a casual chat can give you more information than any formal meeting can.
When people have their guards down, they are much more likely to say what they actually think, feel and aspire to.
Don’t assume that just because someone has strong views that seem irrational to you that they are not valid points of view for that person.
Rather than calling someone crazy, try to understand what is underlying those extreme viewpoints or opinions: often these are hidden values and beliefs that the person holds overall.
By understanding these, we are in a much better situation to also understand which options and strategies are likely more acceptable as outcomes and which are too far off for them to consider.
And rather than holding extreme views ourselves or trying to come out with the best compromise (that is often a watered down deal from both ends), try finding a solution that delivers for both parties’ aspirations.
Don’t only assume but listen and ask
Many of us are blinded by our own assumptions and we create a story of what is going on and why other people act as they do.
These stories based on our assumptions are often useful guides but relying on them too much can also lead us to miss out on key information.
As Chris notes:
“If an over reliance on known knowns can shackle a negotiator to assumptions that prevent him from seeing and h earring all that a situation presents, then perhaps an enhanced receptivity to the unknown unknowns can free the same negotiator to see and hear things that can produce dramatic breakthroughs” (p. 218).
Being more open to the possibility that you don’t have all the key information at your grasp requires a deep and fundamental shift in how you think.
That shift of being aware of Black Swans is crucial because “what you don’t know can kill you, or your deal” (p. 219).
For example, Chris was in a hostage negotiation where the whole FBI was assuming a routine situation where the hostage taker would eventually look for options to surrender.
Yet, the situation turned out horribly wrong with hostages getting killed and finally the hostage taker was killed by the police.
In the aftermath analysis, they realised that the goal for this hostage taker was actually not to surrender at all but to be killed by the police in the process.
This information was implied in many pieces but they failed to pick up the significance of these messages given that their assumptions about the hostage taker blinded them to see another possibility.
Asking questions like “Why are their communicating what they are communicating right now?” can enable you to think more broadly as to what aspects of the situation you might be overlooking.
Negotiation is lifelong set of skills
The bottom line is that these are a set of skills that anyone can master and they will be useful to you in every situation:
“One can only be an exception negotiator, and a great person, by both listening and speaking clearly and empathetically; by treating counterparts and oneself- with dignity and respect; and most of all by being honest about what one wants and what one can – and cannot- do. Every negotiation, every conversation, every moment of life, is a series of small conflicts that, managed well, can rise to creative beauty” (p. 243).
In the end, negotiation is not about just plain manipulation of how to get others do what you want but rather a process of finding out what their wants are and how those match yours.
That is the basis of sound decision-making but as Chris notes, you also need to be firm and honest to yourself as well as to what your own aspirations are and how those fit with what others want.
I personally have so much to learn in this space and I am lucky to be surrounded by such great minds with long-term experience that I am confident I will learn to negotiate better.
In due time.