In his best selling book Big Russ & Me Tim Russert tells the story of a father and son conversation. In this conversation the father and son are both physicians and the father is giving advice to the son. Russert recalls the conversation this way: “Doc Tierney taught his son that treatment is the easy part of medicine; the real challenge is getting the diagnosis right. And the key to the right diagnosis, he would say, comes from really listening to the patient. He warned his son against the danger of arrogance.
‘The minute you think you’re any good in this business,’ he told [his son], ‘that is when you’re going to start harming your patients.'” This conversation set us to thinking about keys to good negotiation practice.
When a negotiator brings preconceived notions to the bargaining table it is the same as a physician who pre-judges what is going on with a patient. The doctor’s advice to his son highlights the dangers of our preconceived notions. Preconceived notions prevent careful listening to the other party! William McGinnis, Arid lands scientist, octogenarian, and founder of the Office of Arid Lands Studies [University of Arizona] once advised, “Few of us realize how much we have have to know in order to understand how very little we really know.” These are humbling words, but even more so when we consider how little we really know about others’ needs and objectives. When we carefully attend to the words of others, we become so much wiser, and those to whom we listen will appreciate having been heard.
Our wisdom is diminished when the focus is all about us rather than about the party with whom we are negotiating. A focus on our preconceived notions communicates to the other party that: 1) we are not really interested in what he/she has to say, 2) we are really interested only in getting our own way, and 3) if she/he will just pay attention, we have the prescription that they need to follow.
Focusing on our own preconceived notions is a kind of arrogance. The other parties in a negotiation will understand exactly what we are doing. They will believe we don’t care about them. To overcome this problem we must discipline ourselves to try to understand what our counterparts want and need, while also considering what we want and need. One way to achieve these two goals is to create a checklist outlining our interests. Right beside our own list we should mark down the other parties’ interests. Try to identify points in either list that need to change because of what we are learning about the other parties. Look for points where interests coincide and begin to focus our attention on the positive aspects of what we agree about. Once we have identified those positives, we can move on to the issues that require further negotiation.
As in the doctor’s example, the real challenge in negotiation is getting the diagnosis right. It is hard work to understand what is going on with the other parties. In addition to simply listening carefully to what others are saying, another tool to build understanding is to ask a lot of questions. The questions we should ask are about “what” and “how.” For example, we might ask “Tell me more about what you are proposing?” or “How do you envision that working in when we implement the agreement?”
It is good practice to stay away from “Why” questions. “Why” questions get us a lot of stories and theories about the problem. These stories often include attributions of blame that may be of little use in helping us form our responses. Why questions–such as “Why do you say that?”–are also perceived as challenging. People may become defensive. In asking questions we are not trying to beat down our opponent, rather we are seeking clarity about the interests that underlie the positions of each negotiator.
The important lesson from the conversation reported in Russert’s book is that we need to get the diagnosis right before we start prescribing solutions.
Russell C. Sanders
Jonathan G. Taylor
Berton Lee Lamb