“This negotiation is a marathon. It’s going to take a long time to achieve our goal, and it will be tough. Some of our steps might even be painful. But we must be persistent and focus on what we want to achieve long-term.”
When was the last time you heard or used a metaphor or an analogy in a negotiation?
The answer to this question is important, for we often use metaphors and analogies in negotiations, but rarely do so consciously and with strategic foresight.
In fact, the use of metaphors and analogies can have a powerful impact on our ability to control the agenda as well as to discern the true interests and needs of our counterparts.
As noted by Thomas H. Smith in his article “Metaphors for Navigating Negotiations” in the Harvard Negotiation Journal, metaphors operate “covertly to gain tacit agreement on direction, means and ends without full description or rationale. It constrains a discussion, focusing on certain concerns while masking others.”
So how should we evaluate the impact of metaphors and analogies when others use them, and when should you use them in your negotiations?
Consider the following factors in making these decisions:
1. Be conscious about metaphors and analogies.
The obvious first step is to consciously analyze the negotiation metaphors or analogies, including those mentioned by your counterpart or those you might consider using.
Simply becoming more aware of their impact will sensitize you to the strategic goals your counterpart might be attempting to achieve by using them.
For example, when your counterpart says “We’re all playing on the same team,” he is communicating — on the surface — that he believes you share mutual goals and interests.
But he also is communicating that his mindset and approach, overall, is fairly competitive. “Playing” on “teams” most often implies that you must be “playing” against someone else and suggests a win-lose attitude.
2. Consider using an analogy or metaphor to address your preferred topics.
Metaphors and analogies have a tendency to redirect a person’s thinking once they are raised, especially vivid and/or memorable ones.
So begin your negotiations having a good one in your back pocket, ready to pull out when necessary.
Give this some thought, too, before the negotiation begins, since you will find that they can be particularly effective at focusing parties’ attention away from or toward a particular issue.
3. Evaluate the similarities and differences with your situation.
Since analogies and metaphors can be so powerful, it is especially important to ensure that they are appropriate to the situation.
For instance, Richard Neustadt and Ernest May in “Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers,” describe the largely negative impact of the Johnson White House’s failure to appropriately compare the French occupation of Vietnam in the 1950s to the U.S. situation in 1965.
In that critical internal White House negotiation on how to wage war in Vietnam, an analogy to France in Vietnam in the 1950s was considered but not truly analyzed in terms of its similarities and differences.
If it had been, it would have highlighted many of the problems the U.S. eventually faced there.
4. Dig below the surface to find an analogy’s true meaning.
As Smith noted above, metaphors have a tendency to focus on “certain concerns while masking others.”
When used to help you control the agenda, metaphors and analogies can be very effective in addressing your preferred issues and avoiding certain topics.
But this also means that when you hear one, you should consider what the other side is trying to accomplish with it. What might be “masked” by accepting the metaphor or analogy?
This may give you some important insights into your counterpart’s thinking and preferred agenda.
Of course, in many ways, a negotiation is just like a marathon. But there also are many important differences. Both need to be evaluated if you run with that analogy.
Published September 2, 2005 The Business Journal