Have you ever been in a situation where your negotiation team is de-briefing a bargaining session and one of your colleagues starts badmouthing your opponent? This sometimes happens after a particularly difficult negotiating session or the opponent has taken a particularly hard line. Sometimes it happens when you have made a proposal that the other side has rejected. What should you do when members of your negotiation team start to tear down the opponent?
Findings from a study of workplace gossip provide helpful hints about this situation. You can read a summary of the study in a recent edition of The New York Times. The research about gossip in the workplace tells us something about the pitfalls of tearing down an opponent. One thing that happens when badmouthing begins is that others are encouraged to join in. Joining a gripe session is a very normal social response in group situations, especially when the group is a collection of friends, coworkers, or peers. However, when members of our negotiating team start tearing down the opponent in private it (1) takes the team away from the kind of objective analysis that is necessary for a successful negotiation and (2) sets an unfortunate tone for future bargaining sessions. The things said in private will spill over into the interactions among the parties and can unnecessarily reduce trust and narrow bargaining options.
We should recognize that a badmouthing conversation may happen during any negotiation. But what can we do about it? First, if you are the negotiation team leader you need to manage the conversation within your team and keep the team focused. More than simply refusing to participate in a gripe session, the team leader should redirect the discussion to the task at hand–seeking to understand why your opponent responded as she or he did. This focus is far more productive. Second, if the badmouthing behavior continues, refocus the team on its own negotiation behavior. Third, direct the team discussion toward a substantive issue. As in the case of workplace gossip, a good way to change the conversation is for the team leader to say very evenly and professionally “Let’s get back to work!”
If you are not the negotiation team leader you can still help your team steer clear of badmouthing. When an opponent is being gratuitously criticized you can disagree, instead of joining in. To disagree you can say that you are more interested in understanding why your opponent acted that way. This needs to be done early in the conversation. Resist joining the gripe session. Concentrate your contributions on discussing substantive issues that need the attention of the team.
No matter what you decide to do, the goal should be to keep the team focused on productive and constructive conversations. Those kinds of discussions will help bring positive closure to the negotiation.
Berton Lee Lamb