Do you ever wonder where to put your focus during a negotiation? Most of the negotiations in which we are involved include a very high level of analysis. Data are a big part of almost all negotiations. The tendency is to focus first on the analysis. We think that if we can present a good case our opponent will naturally fall into line. Our line!
Recent research, however, underscores the need to take a strategic approach to negotiations. Such a strategic approach acknowledges the importance of overcoming analytical bias and emphasizes the need to address normative beliefs. There are many kinds of beliefs, but the term “normative beliefs” refer to a standard or norm. A normative belief may be one that suggests an outcome. We want our negotiation strategy to recognize that the outcomes parties suggest are not merely the result of their analyses but are results they have come to believe in.
We are frequently tempted to frame the negotiation as one between experts (us!) and non-experts (them). However, this characterization of a conflict is very often wrong, and seldom helpful. People usually come to the bargaining table with their own analysis. We might find fault with what they have analyzed or the conclusions they have reached, but most stakeholders have a fairly high level of expertise. Lack of expertise is usually not a roadblock to conflict resolution.
However, competing analyses and analytical bias are often roadblocks. Everyone is trying to find a way to make sense out of what are inherently complex conflicts. Once we have settled on our analysis we become biased in favor of the findings we have developed and we are less likely to consider other ways of looking at the dispute. We may even choose a type of analysis because we think it is most likely to support our preconceived notions about the best way out of a negotiation. Certainly, our analysis helps guide us in the choice of allies. Our allies, then, reinforce our analytical bias.
In short, we can never escape the need to focus on beliefs when we are negotiating. Our beliefs guide us toward particular analytics and help us interpret the results. Beliefs tell us whom it is safe to associate with; who will be our allies in the conflict. Beliefs provide guidelines to measure success.
What can we do to focus on the beliefs of our opponents and protect ourselves against bias? The first lesson is to be open-minded. We often hear that it is important to be open-minded, but this is actually very difficult to do! It requires practice. One of the best things we can do to maintain an open mind is to practice active listening. Part of active listening is asking questions. Asking questions can be a good way to gain information about the opponent, but it is also a great way to promote our own openness to new information. Perhaps the best form of question is the open-ended one because it allows the other party to provide more information. Being an open-minded negotiator means that we are looking for new information, new ways of thinking, and a better resolution than we had ourselves devised.
A second lesson is to explore the beliefs of our opponent. What do they really believe? Are our beliefs fundamentally opposed? What are the areas in which we actually agree? Of course, this means we need to be pretty clear about our own beliefs. Clarifying our own beliefs can help us identify biases in our analytics.
The third lesson is that although analytic bias contributes to the intractability of conflicts, it is best to view those biases as secondary to beliefs (Weible & Moore 2010 page 763). Therefore, it is useful to consider how those beliefs can be addressed. Perhaps there are ways we can satisfy at least some of the beliefs of our opponents. One way to do this is to expand the context of the discussion (Weible & Moore 2010 page 763). This might be done by developing resolution strategies that span several analytical fields, bringing into play the analyses done by the parties.
One way to expand the context is to negotiate to reset the discussion. To make a “reset” work we would want to guide the parties back to the beginning so that we could explore the problem as a team. We would ask “What is the problem we are trying to resolve?” Let all the parties contribute to building an understanding of the problem and be open to the probability that the problem will look different to us after everyone has chimed in. Then we would want to collaboratively explore what kind of analysis would lead us toward outcomes everyone can live with. Resetting a negotiation in this way is hard work, with many stumbling blocks. But if successful it can lead us to a better resolution.
Another way to expand the context is to take the focus off of analysis and guide the parties to a discussion of the variables each party thinks are important to resolve the problem. Once a discussion of variables is started, we can then suggest additional variables that the other parties have not mentioned and encourage them to suggest new variables to us. This is a way of “expanding the pie” (i.e., identifying more needs that can be satisfied but which had remained hidden in the initial discussions). After a good discussion of the additional variables, we can turn our attention (again) to the analyses the parties have conducted and ask which of those approaches can help us understand the new variables. Again, this kind of bargaining is hard work. However, it may be more productive than escalating arguments over the merits of opposing analysis, or fights between competing experts.