How to resolve a difficult negotiation or harmful conflict

In my last post, I described two of our social tendencies that have the ability to create and escalate harmful conflict. 

Below are four powerful strategies we can use when conflict escalates to the point of peril and instead change course towards a mutually beneficial outcome.

  1. Offer a reasonable concession

As counter-intuitive as it may seem to many negotiators, there are few things more effective than providing a concession when trying to break out of spiraling conflict or difficult stalemate. A great example of this can be found in the detailed account of the negotiations between The United States and Iran during the Obama presidency titled “Losing an Enemy” by Trita Parisi. In his book, Parisi demonstrates how the parties broke through the consistency trap of their previous red-line demands, as well a dangerously accelerating game of Chicken:

What resolved the nuclear issue was ultimately not the pressure the two sides could bring to bear on each other, but the discarding of unreasonable and unrealistic demands – whether the American insistence on zero enrichment or the Iranian belief that it could present Washington with a nuclear fait accompli.

In this case, it was the U.S. who blinked first, deciding to play their best card up front versus holding it until the very last. This unexpected concession surprised the Iranians. They swiftly decided to reciprocate by agreeing to negotiate with the U.S. directly, itself considered an important concession. After a successful deal was finally completed in 2015 it was this chain of events that was credited for jump-starting what was widely believed to be a lost cause.

  1. Keep the communication lines open

If we are not ready to make a significant concession at the very least expressing our openness to communicate is a must. For while it is true that “active listening is the cheapest concession we can make”, it is also true that we cannot actively listen if the other party won’t talk. Similarly, we cannot expect the other party to empathize with our situation if we choose to disengage.

So how can a proactive negotiator resurrect a broken dialogue? Two methods stand out. First, we can attempt what former FBI hostage negotiator Gary Noesner calls one way dialogue. As he explains in his book “Stalling For Time”, one way dialogue involves addressing potential unstated questions, concerns, and fears of the other party. (President Obama attempted a variation of this on a geopolitical scale when he released a video message to all of Iran soon after his 2009 election.) Second, we can attempt to set up a private dialogue outside of the formal setting, which the U.S. and Iran did by negotiating with each other in the country of Oman secretly in 2013. Also known as “going backstage”, this avenue can allow participants to explore the idea of being flexible without having to commit too early or posture for their internal audiences.

  1. Bring in a trusted 3rd party

If communication lines exist and reasonable concessions have yet to get the ball rolling there’s either too much animosity to focus on problem solving or not enough trust to believe that positive gestures will be reciprocated. It is at this point that a respected third party can be used to formally or informally mediate the conflict. For example, Parisi describes that when the U.S. and Iran finally decided they were ready to talk seriously their secret meeting was arranged and mediated by the Sultan of Oman, one of the few leaders in the Middle East who had a good relationship with both parties. Further, at crucial points when their negotiations were on the precipice, both parties relied on the Sultan to give verbal and written assurances that words could be trusted. It is often this very ability of a third party to provide a helpful private forum, along with additional positive assurances, that creates the momentum and oxygen needed to move forward.

  1. Create an intelligent compromise

Finally, whether one or a combination of the above strategies are employed, our most competitive and challenging negotiations will usually require significant creativity.

According to social psychologists, there are five effective ways we can generate integrative solutions leading to a mutually beneficial outcome. The first is known as “expanding the pie”, which involves creating additional value through the combination of the parties’ goals and interests. The second is called “nonspecific compensation”. This involves finding alternative ways to compensate each other for concessions that cannot be matched in the same form provided. The third is “cost cutting”. Cost cutting involves reducing the amount that a party will have to sacrifice in terms of actual dollars or perceived risk. The fourth is called “logrolling”, which involves taking the specific demands of each party and evaluating what trades can be made based on how differently they are valued. (A common example is one party agreeing to pay a higher price if the other will provide more generous terms.) Finally, the fifth is called “bridging”, where the underlying interests of each party are satisfyingly addressed via an outcome that is different from their original demands. Interestingly, most if not all of these creative forms of problem solving can be found in Parisi’s account of the negotiations between the U.S. and Iran.

CONCLUSION:

“The Negotiator who suffers from myopia will fix on his or her objective and assume that there is only one alternative for getting there. The more skilled negotiator will be able to discern the connection, complex though it may be, between some new alternative and the objective which they seek.” Walton & McKersie

The beauty of each of the four strategies above is they all have the potential to provide a face-saving off ramp when on a dangerous path of escalation or stalemate. However, one party will usually have to take the lead in getting things started, implementing one or more of the various strategies in a trial and error format that will test our grit and determination. Fortunately, where there is a persistent and creative will, there often is a way.

3 things we can learn from the 2 trillion dollar stimulus negotiation

Late last week, the U.S. government successfully negotiated a historic stimulus plan while under great pressure to help mitigate the economic hardship due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A noteworthy outcome for many reasons, it was especially so when considering the dynamic and fast-moving conditions in which two highly adversarial parties had to come together and reach agreement.

Here are three things I believe we can learn from the negotiation:

Create the proper environment

One reason the negotiation was successful is that careful thought was given to who would lead the negotiations for each side.

For example, when negotiations began between the White House and House of Representatives, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin took the lead on behalf of the White House while House leader Nancy Pelosi took the lead for the Democrats.

This was effective for two reasons. First, the post impeachment fallout prevented the possibility of direct negotiations between Nancy Pelosi and President Trump, as the two have not exchanged words since their contentious meeting last October. Second, Nancy Pelosi and Steven Mnuchin have an established track record of success working together on important negotiations, such as the initial coronavirus relief bill, and debt-ceiling negotiations last summer.

The lesson to be taken here is the importance of creating the best environment for our negotiations to thrive. The goal should be to create a face saving environment, where negotiators who’ve proven the ability to stay rational and bring positive versus negative relational baggage into the interaction are the ones sitting across the table.

Be prepared for a rocky ride

Throughout negotiation there were a number of inflection points when new demands were made, dramatic threats were issued, and breakdowns seemed likely.

For example, days after Nancy Pelosi negotiated terms with Secretary Mnuchin on behalf of the House, Senate Republicans revised the legislation with terms that were greatly in their favor. Days later, Senate Democrats successful played hard-ball, creating an impasse to secure concessions on items they considered non-negotiable. And even after the final night of negotiations, a lone representative attempted to prevent the planned vote from happening, throwing Congress into a last minute scramble. Luckily, negotiators from both sides were able to stay focused on the end goal, continuously reverting back to problem solving each time curveballs appeared.

The lesson to be taken is to embrace the process, especially in regards to the posturing and power plays that invariably occur. Likewise, realizing that oftentimes for negotiators to persuade their constituents to accept an outcome – or to accept it themselves – they have to feel they’ve made a stand. Don’t get rattled by this ritual. Control your emotions, and never be surprised by last minute tactics to bulldoze, they’re often the norm.

Be flexible, yet firm

Finally, both sides were able to come to terms because each took a pragmatic approach, putting down their foot when needed while easing back when they were pushing the limit.

For example, after Republicans tried to renegotiate better terms for their side, Nancy Pelosi conveyed that the new terms were simply unacceptable for the Democrats, vividly and matter of factly telling Republican negotiators, “the two animals couldn’t mate.” Yet in the end, Democrats accepted enough of the newly proposed terms to ensure that a bill that included their priorities would be unanimously passed and swiftly signed by President Trump.

The lesson here is finding the right balance. Many negotiations will call for a more firmness, while some will call for more flexibility. Some will even call for us to walk away, an option that’s far more available in everyday negotiations than it was for Congress. However, as author and researcher Adam Grant pointed out in his recent NY Times article titled “In Negotiations, Givers Are Smarter Than Takers”, collaborative negotiators who use their intelligence more than their toughness tend to create better outcomes for both parties. The key then, perhaps, is to be firm yet intelligently flexible, providing ourselves with the best opportunity to discover whatever it takes for “the animals to mate”.

Dalio and Kissinger on playing the Infinite Game

Earlier this week, Ray Dalio, author the brilliant book Principles, posted on his social media a speech that he gave at an event for the Committee on US-China relations. He also shared another short speech from the event by Henry Kissinger, who famously opened our relations to China in the early 1970s. In addition to some great insights on power, influence, and conflict resolution, I found what I believe is a strong connection to the philosophies and concepts in Simon Sinek’s recent book The Infinite Game.

In addressing the conflicting opinions that many have over the policies over the United States and China, Dalio spoke about the importance of being able to see through the other’s eyes. For example, if looking at the emphasis in the United States on the individual compared to the emphasis in China on the family or collective, we could better understand the actions of the other party.

Next, Dalio presented an incredible chart demonstrating the rise and falls of empires over the course of history. In this visual Infinite Game, we see in stunning context the ups and downs of China throughout history. However, despite having their ups and downs, it’s clear to see their consistency among the leading empires.

Wrapping up his remarks, and lightly addressing the ongoing negotiations between the two countries, Dalio stated:

So when I look at it, I hope that it is done with mutual understanding, that instead of wars which mean lose-lose relationships that we approach this with win-win relationships by seeing each other through each other’s eyes, and not expecting the others to be like us in all respects and as we evolve through time.

Next, Kissinger spoke about US-China relations, also from a wide lens to provide context. Kissinger emphasized his belief that part of the problem between the US and China is that many feel the other party is an adversary. Kissinger recommended – alla Sinek’s The Infinite Game – that they should instead be seen as a rival, and that we should not be focused on competing to win but on coexisting over time, while doing our best to find solutions to the problems we have. In his remarks, he illustrated:

So both countries, used to being exceptional countries, and used to being unique countries, have to get used to the fact that they have a kind of a rival, and that competition is, in a way, permanent. Modern economics and modern technology link the world into one system, and when two great countries encounter each other in this manner it is inevitable that on many issues there may not be a complete agreement. But what is imperative is that both countries understand that a permanent conflict between them cannot be won...

So, what can we take away from all of this? I believe three things:

  1. There is great power in seeing through the other party’s eyes, and accepting that there might always be some level disagreement for the relationship to exist.
  2. That in contentious conflict context is important. When we take a wider lense and see the overall process, we see that we are players in an Infinite Game. Taking this perspective humbles, yet it also something from which we can draw confidence.
  3. As Kissinger so widely believed though his decades of diplomacy and negotiation with China, it is correct to view the other party not as an adversary to beat permanently, but instead as a rival to complete with while we all try to be exceptional playing in the Infinite Game.