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Negotiating Is Not A Four Letter Word

By Katherine Craig

Jackson has a rocky relationship with David, his department head. They frequently clash on topics ranging from company policy to provincial politics and while he is technically junior, Jackson has more experience with the organization and frequently disagrees with the decisions handed down from his superior. When he is summoned to David's office on a Thursday afternoon he is fully expecting to leave with another 'emergency' project - one that will be added to his already overloaded schedule. With staff rotating through their summer holidays, it will be even more of a challenge to meet David's new deadline without dropping some other project or working even more overtime. Jackson will have to put his foot down and demand that his workload be reduced. He will have to tell David how unreasonable his expectations are becoming and insist that he change his approach.

Like it or not, your daily life is a series of negotiations. Every interaction has an element of bartering: for attention, compliance, understanding, a space in the merge lane. We are constantly comparing our personal and professional needs with the resources available from those around us, trying to meet our goals while supporting - not obstructing - our spouses, friends, colleagues, fellow motorists. Most negotiations go on so subtly we aren't aware of them, so when we consciously enter into them it is with trepidation. The role of 'negotiator' has been elevated to an area of specialty in the sphere of commerce, so we mistakenly believe we don't possess the ability to navigate the tough workplace conversations.

Not so. Whether you're a senior manager trying to communicate the director's priorities to your time-strapped department, a junior manager seeking support for an ambitious project, or an HR manager preparing for a delicate performance review, there are some simple steps you can take to have the 'tough conversations' without conflict or crisis. It's important, though, that you approach each conversation with these basic guidelines in mind.

ne•go•ti•ate (verb): discuss terms of agreement; to attempt to come to an agreement on something through discussion and compromise.

1. Stop thinking of negotiating as adversarial. As the dictionary definition suggests, it's an attempt to come to an agreement that involves compromise. It's not an arm-wrestling match with a winner and a loser. It's the barter system of communication - give and take. If you don't take the time, though, you won't find out what you actually have to give and the conversation will dissolve into a 'my desk is stacked higher than your desk' exchange.

2. Separate the person from the issue. Any preconceived bias you have about the counterpart in your exchange will cloud your vision and prevent you from seeing the matter at hand, and chances are you share a stake in the issue. People tend to be very positional when presenting their point of view, but it's unlikely that their position exists completely in isolation of yours. Take a moment to look at the specific issue as part of a larger picture and you might find more points of overlap than you would have predicted. Once you have established some areas of mutual interest, you can set about looking for mutual solutions to the problem at hand without interpersonal prejudice.

3. Speak the language of your listener. Take into account the bias of your audience, and try to use language that resonates with their specific department. Someone from HR is going to respond to a much different tone and content compared to someone in finance, or production. Try to imagine the issue as your listener would, based on their area of expertise, and do your best to speak in those terms.

Keeping these principles in the background will greatly improve the focus of your foreground as you engage in daily interactions in office. While the following steps require an investment in time, you'd be surprised at how little. In fact, it can take as few as five minutes to turn a potential confrontation into a successful negotiation.

Step 1: Clarify the issue. Knowing the common ground upon which the two of you stand will aid in creating bridges between their perspective and yours, so it helps to review your counterpart's position. Take a few minutes to restate what you've understood to be their circumstances, limitations and goals and address any misunderstandings immediately. Ask for clarification or elaboration if need be, then once again review the issue and don't go forward until you're confident you have mutual understanding. Like building a house, if the foundation is faulty the finished product will be riddled with flaws.

Step 2: Look outside the room for support. The solution might require input from people other than you or your colleague. It isn't unreasonable to spend a couple of minutes identifying whether or not you are the person who should be directly involved in addressing the current issue. Should other people be consulted? Are there other stakeholders who might bring expertise or knowledge, who could speed up the process or save either one of you from reinventing the wheel?

Step 3: Establish the real timeline. Is it an actual emergency? Is it really time-sensitive? The minutes it will take you to triage the issue can save you hours of time and effort spent reallocating resources needlessly. Ask questions like "Why is this important to you?" or, "What triggered this time frame?" Taking your hand (and your colleague's) off the Panic button and clearly identifying the actual deadline for a given project will make your response more efficient and effective in the long run.

Step 4: Spin the options and chose one together. Once you've established the parameters, the stakeholders and the actual timeline, take a few moments to brainstorm solutions. Remember that the options aren't 'Done' or 'Not done'. There is undoubtedly a mutually acceptable resolution to the issue at hand, and taking a few moments to consider all possible angles will ensure that the course of action you pursue is not only a fair compromise, but also an effective one.

Following these simple steps may cost you ten minutes but they will earn you immeasurable gains, whether you're leading a team meeting, conducting a one-on-one evaluation, or trying to resolve an office dispute. Keeping a focus on the issue, not the personality, taking time to establish common ground, exploring the need for outside resources and establishing a realistic timeline will enable you to reach consensus more quickly and effectively, and will pave the way for ongoing, healthy dialogue.

Katherine Craig is the founder & CEO of Spearhead Executive Coaching, a dynamic organization dedicated to helping individuals and companies achieve greater success through the delivery of high-performance coaching programs, workshops and retreats. She welcomes your comments: katherine@spearheadexecutivecoaching.com.