At stake was $150 million. AT&T was pitching its new telecommunications system. Boeing wanted to purchase it. Early in the negotiation AT&T described its reliable service, its prompt response rate and the speed with which it would fix possible problems.
Boeing then requested that AT&T put its promises in writing and guarantee its problems would be immediately fixed, with 100 percent liability for damages.
AT&T’s salesman balked, stating, “We’ll make our best efforts, but we can’t be held liable for all the things that can go wrong. Lightning can strike.”
“You’re fooling with us,” the Boeing negotiator then interrupted, losing his temper. “First you tell us about your services. Now you’re not willing to commit yourself to what you promised. …You’re not negotiating in good faith. We can’t deal with you.” Boeing then walked.
Have you ever dealt with similar emotions in negotiations – anger, fear, defensiveness, suspicion or hostility? I suspect everyone has.
So what should you do, and how did AT&T get this back on track?
William Ury, in his book “Getting Past No: Negotiating Your Way From Confrontation to Cooperation,” describes an effective framework to use in negotiations involving a high degree of emotion. Here’s what he suggests, plus a few thoughts of my own:
DON’T REACT: GO TO THE BALCONY
Start by not reacting. Reacting often will lead to an emotional escalation that can spiral out of control.
To prevent this, Ury suggests you figuratively detach yourself by imagining you are on a balcony overlooking the negotiation.
Then, take the time on the balcony – perhaps in a formal break – to focus on what you fundamentally want. Devise a strategy to attack the problem, not your counterpart.
Thomas Jefferson once said, “When angry, count 10 before you speak; if very angry, a hundred.”
Perhaps simply be silent and let your counterpart vent. Silence can be a very effective counter in highly emotional situations.
DON’T ARGUE: STEP TO THEIR SIDE
Ury also suggests you must defuse their emotions and understand the reasons underlying their actions before you can effectively address the problem. Attempting to convince your counterpart you’re right rarely sheds light on the issue.
Listening respectfully and acknowledging the legitimacy of their points and feelings, without agreeing, will accomplish far more.
Show them you understand by actively listening and asking questions – especially open-ended ones like “why,” “how,” “what,” “tell me about,” and “explain.”
Don’t interrupt, either. Interrupting often is perceived as signaling that you believe your thoughts are more important than theirs.
Above all, imagine yourself in their position. Figure out what’s really going on. Then search for a solution.
DEPERSONALIZE THE SITUATION
Solutions in highly emotional negotiations often revolve around the parties finding some way to resolve their differences without appearing to give in.
How can you do this? Find an independent standard or procedure that both sides will accept as leading to a fair result.
Let’s say you want to purchase your sibling’s interest in some property once owned by your grandparents. Emotions are involved given your family’s long connection with this property. How can you reduce the emotion? Propose that both sides agree to be bound by an independent appraiser’s valuation of the property.
An expert’s opinion, similar to standards like market value, precedent, and costs, can depersonalize negotiations by focusing the parties’ attention on objective standards. Otherwise, it’s your opinion versus theirs – and this can lead to unnecessarily adversarial situations.
In the AT&T/Boeing dispute, the AT&T representative used all these strategies to get the negotiations going again.
First, he went “to the balcony” by letting time pass before requesting a meeting with Boeing.
Second, he “stepped to their side” by initially stating that he wanted to ensure he understood why Boeing walked. He then stated Boeing’s position (a form of active listening), which Boeing confirmed.
The AT&T representative then said he’d feel the same way if he were in Boeing’s shoes. As he understood it, he said, aircraft manufacturers put promises and safety specifications in writing and include significant liability provisions to minimize the risk that mistakes will be made. This is especially critical when lives are at stake.
Importantly, AT&T came to understand this by asking questions and studying Boeing and its precedents, an independent standard.
AT&T, by contrast, was largely in the service business and thus approached these issues differently. Up to that point, AT&T only rarely had to reduce all its promises to writing with comprehensive liability provisions. Why not? Because it enjoyed a reputation for taking excellent care of its customers.
The conflict – and the emotion – arose due to the companies’ different perspectives on the same issues.
They ultimately reached a deal, and so can you.
But remember – don’t let emotions control you or the deal.
Published November 23, 2001 The Business Journal