Good Negotiating: Step into your Counterpart’s Shoes
“I just don’t understand,” John said. “How can they take that position? If you analyze this issue logically and evaluate all the relevant factors, they should be willing to accept our offer.”
What’s the problem? John failed to adequately put himself in his counterparts’ shoes and fully appreciate their perspective. Harvard law professor Robert Mnookin, in “Beyond Winning: Negotiating to Create Value in Deals and Disputes,” describes this as a failure to empathize, which he defines as “demonstrating an understanding of the other side’s needs, interests, and perspective, without necessarily agreeing.”
In other words, it’s not enough to just comprehensively explore your own goals, and figure out a way to satisfy them. Research confirms the most effective negotiators also must step into their counterparts’ shoes and figure out how their counterparts can satisfy their own goals, needs and interests.
You need to see the negotiation world through your counterpart’s eyes.
Unfortunately, this is much easier said than done. Why? To fully and accurately empathize and appreciate your counterpart’s perspective, you must overcome two critical psychological tendencies that can distort an accurate evaluation of the negotiation.
First, parties unconsciously give greater weight and influence to information that supports their point of view and their side’s position. Likewise, parties tend to minimize the relevance and importance of information helping their counterparts.
In a fascinating study, two groups of executives were given identical information regarding a negotiation that involved a litigation claim against an insurance company. Some randomly were assigned to role-play the claimant’s side. The others were asked to role-play the insurance company. Each executive then was asked to privately assess their likelihood of success if the matter went to trial and to predict the amount of damages that would be awarded.
Those representing the insurance company were far less likely to believe the court would find for the claimant and, if it did, indicated it would award a relatively small amount in damages. Those representing the claimant largely reached the opposite conclusion. Remember, these executives received identical information about the case.
A similar study took place involving executives asked to role-play the buyer or seller of a business. After receiving identical information about the business, those randomly assigned as sellers gave median valuations more than twice the amount assessed by the buyers.
To most effectively empathize and step into our counterpart’s shoes, we must overcome this self-serving bias.
Second, as Mnookin notes, “research has shown that negotiators routinely jump to mistaken conclusions about their counterparts’ motivations (and intentions), usually because their information is limited.” This potentially can cause great problems as parties might, for instance, assume their counterparts intended to show up late, thus being rude, even if traffic really caused the tardiness.
And this problem can be multiplied if the mistaken party retaliates to this “rudeness” by purposefully showing up late for the next meeting. It can devolve into a vicious cycle.
How can you overcome these psychological tendencies and thus increase your negotiation effectiveness?
1) Awareness alone will lessen their impact.
Simply knowing these tendencies exist will help you consciously assess their impact on your negotiation and will help mitigate their potential negative effect.
2) Find a devil’s advocate.
Before you sit down with the other side, find a colleague or – better yet – a neutral third party, and ask them to role-play the other side in a mock negotiation. Then take their assessments to heart and factor them into your evaluations of the matter.
3) Engage in some role-reversal.
Consciously take the other person’s side in the matter and make their arguments for them. Try to poke as many holes as you can in your own side. Next, find the flaws and weaknesses in your own assessment and consciously factor in the unconscious bias you may have developed given your position.
One of the hardest elements of the negotiation process has nothing to do with you. It has to do, instead, with the other side.
Negotiations, by definition, involve more than one party. Knowing this, always try to accurately assess what’s in your counterpart’s head.
Mastering this skill – and evaluating the biases involved – will take you several steps closer to satisfying your own needs.
That, after all, is largely what negotiation is all about.
Published October 3, 2003 The Business Journal