Archive for November 3, 2015

One Day in the Life of a Negotiator

If I told you that on Sunday, October 4, 2015, I had brunch in Logan Square with a friend, moved from one meeting at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago to another meeting at the Four Seasons, participated in a three hour afternoon meeting, took a short jog along the Oak Street Beach, and had dinner with 14 other people, you might think of this as the kind of forgettable trivia that litters too many Facebook pages.

But what would you think if I told you that on that Sunday I completed 33 negotiations, 12 of high complexity, four of moderate complexity, and the rest low complexity?   The high complexity ones required me to a) persuade the rest of the committee to accept my recommendations on eight program reviews, b) conduct three long conversations with a stranger and two colleagues at dinner, and c) navigate one 55-minute phone call with my dear wife about plans for her ailing father.  These 12 required the exchange of lots of information leading to multiple decisions, often with compromises and substantial consequences if the negotiation went badly, especially that 55-minute phone call.

I dodged one intended negotiation with the head of the committee because I guessed he would refuse to negotiate about my proposal, but the others were all resolved satisfactorily—three through screens, six by phone, and 23 in face-to-face conversations, not to mention the uncounted strangers I managed to negotiate space with on the subway and sidewalks without knocking anyone down.  Not a bad day for an out-of-town guy who has never been trained in the fine art of negotiation.

Of course none of the other people I was negotiating with were likely to know much about negotiation either.  We all do it by the seat of our pants, every day.  And usually it works out, especially with the low complexity negotiations—so effortless that we don’t even notice.  How many negotiations did you attempt yesterday and how did they go?

Your answer depends on how you define “negotiation.”  Consider the possibility that a negotiation is any communication between at least two people that attempts to meet at least some of the needs of each person.  I was surprised to find that using that definition on my relatively conflict-free day, about half of my encounters qualified as low complexity and nearly a third were high complexity negotiations.

By this definition, every point of contact could lead to a negotiation of some kind.  Every conversation is a negotiation about what to discuss, how long to talk, and the state of the relationship.  Is this a friendship, a romance, a passing chat, or a parting shot?  When these conversations go well, we hardly notice, but when they go badly, we have a complex negotiation on our hands.   Do we talk more or cut it off now, retreat or attack, feed more information or hide it?

There’s no shortage of opportunities for negotiation in everyday life.  Every email, text, or Facebook posting sends an invitation to negotiate.  Navigating heavy traffic requires reading the minds of other drivers, communicating your intentions and needs, and accommodating theirs.  Failure to negotiate these public spaces will earn you the middle finger of the road ragers, or maybe more.  Buy anything, sing a song for anyone, feed your family or your customer, work your way through a website, do your homework for your teacher, face the cop who flags you down for speeding—all these are negotiations between at least two people attempting to meet the needs of each person.

How do we do it?  Most of us have no idea what our methods are, any more than we could tell you how we walk.  We negotiate by imitation, learn by trial and error.  When it goes badly, we have no way of figuring out why or how to do it better.

Getting to Yes by Fischer and Ury introduced me to one method for understanding the negotiation process.  It’s a quick read (200 pages) in plain language, and it applies to negotiating everything from dinner to nuclear arms treaties.  Here are some of the guiding questions that can help set a negotiation back on track:

What’s the problem I want to negotiate about?

With whom should I negotiate?

Does the other person want to negotiate with me?

What’s the best medium for negotiating this problem with this person at this time?

What are my interests?

What are the other person’s interests?

How do our interests overlap?

What more information or resources do I need to negotiate effectively?

How do I start this negotiation?

How do I finish it?

How did we do?  Full, partial, or no resolution?


So next time you feel you got the short stick or ended your day down, ask yourself how your negotiations went.   You’re likely to discover that today is just one more day in the life of a full-time negotiator.  A few smart questions about those negotiations that didn’t go well might make the difference in how you face tomorrow.