Humans are very good at recognizing patterns. One example is how well we recognize people’s faces. I have two young grandsons and people often comment about how the grandsons look like their parents, grandparents, or even great grandparents. Another example is recognizing similar situations. When we encounter a new situation we immediately compare it with our own experiences and look for patterns. But matching patterns can lead negotiators into trouble.
Recognizing patterns is a big help to us. If we can connect a current negotiation situation with one we have experienced in the past, we will know better how to manage it. Recognizing patterns in this way also saves time and resources because we don’t need to use lots of energy researching each new event. In short, we expect the problem and our opponents to fit into a pattern with which we are familiar.
A problem for negotiators is when we misdiagnose the situation. For example, misdiagnosis happens when we label opponents as fitting a pattern when they don’t. Assigning the wrong pattern to a problem or opponent can lead to long, frustrating, and unproductive negotiations.
Research tells us that decision-makers, such as negotiators, are quick to diagnose. Immediately upon encountering a problem, they might have two or three ideas about how it can be resolved. Some highly talented negotiators might generate a few more ideas, but the options we are able to juggle in our heads at any given time are very limited. Not only are negotiators required to evaluate patterns based on a quick assessment of the situation, they must do so while negotiating! The shortcuts we take to figure out what is going on can lead to poor negotiating decisions.
Here is an example: Tom is an executive who regularly negotiates contracts for his company. Recently, he met with a supplier he had not known before and the bargaining almost immediately became difficult. Tom thought the supplier was just playing hardball, much in the way many had done before. After a period of very competitive interaction, Tom took a break. During the break he asked a colleague if he had ever experienced similar tactics from this supplier. The answer was no! Back in the meeting room, Tom tried to start over by explaining that the relationship with this supplier was important to Tom’s company and asking an open-ended question about objectives. As the supplier explained his objectives, Tom became more at ease because he could see that the supplier needed to set a precedent that could help him in another negotiation. This was a different pattern, which Tom knew how to handle.
Tom’s case illustrates two attributes that can enhance the benefits of pattern recognition.
• First is experience. A negotiator should find ways to be exposed to lots of different situations. It is helpful if this exposure occurs with the assistance of a mentor or coach. Tom didn’t have a coach, but he turned to an experienced colleague for a new perspective.
• Second, a negotiator should look for opportunities to assess the bargaining. Tom did this by taking a break. During the break he was able to reassess what was happening in the meeting room. Finding a way to step back–taking a break, consulting notes, or conferring with team members–can give a chance to evaluate whether or not the pattern you think you see is the pattern that is actually being presented.
To summarize, recognizing patterns can be a big help in negotiation, but we should remain open to new interpretations.