As I watch bluster, posturing, and insults dominate the national (and international) debate, I’ve been appalled. It’s not just the bad manners. It’s that anyone who has studied negotiation knows those are failed strategies.
I received training in negotiation from the leaders of the Harvard Negotiation Project (HNP), the insightful team behind the the book “Getting to Yes.” Everything about the world has changed since the book was published, but fundamentally, nothing important has changed about negotiation.
The HNP method is based on the idea that you can’t “win” any significant negotiation. Why? Because, except in trivial cases, you and your negotiating partners will have to live with the results. If you negotiate a publishing contract, you and your publisher will need to work together to succeed. And as anyone who’s ever been in a relationship has learned, “winning” an argument with your partner usually results in losing harmony in the relationship for a while, possibly forever. That’s not much of a win.
That doesn’t mean you have to give in. The HNP method includes techniques for maximizing your advantage with principled methods that will ensure you get the best result your side.
Why is this relevant today? Because we’ve lost sight of what matters. It comes down to tough vs. mean.
Tough negotiators uses every possible method to gain advantage over their negotiating partners to deliver a result that both sides can live with.
Mean negotiators attempt to win by savaging their opponents. An ignorant segment of the public enjoys this spectacle, because they don’t understand that in the long term, savaging your opponents results in a fragile end state and eventually, backlash. Worse, scoring cheap points this way doesn’t tend to get you what you want. You can beat someone up and take their wallet, but you can’t make a living that way, and eventually you’ll pick on someone whose best friend is a linebacker — or who’s packing an Uzi.
Here are the seven elements of the HNP method and how they benefit tough negotiators — and come back to haunt mean ones.
Satisfies everyone’s core interests (rather than positions)
Positions are win-lose. For example, if we’re negotiating the salary, any salary that you pay me has to come out of the company’s money. When both sides take fixed positions, they can’t go back without losing face.
Interests, on the other hand, create flexibility. It might help you to know why I need a specific salary, because you could offer a different benefit, like health insurance or commuting reimbursement or an office with a window, that would satisfy that interest.
How a tough negotiator uses interests: Do research into what matters to your opponent. Figure out how you can get more of what you want by giving them something that’s cheap for you. See win-win outcomes.
How a mean negotiator uses interests: Undermine your opponent. Hit them where it hurts them. This causes them to become entrenched and vow revenge. It also means you may be bypassing an easy win.
Is the best of many options
This is what “out-of-the-box thinking” refers to. It means getting off the win-lose dichotomy and figuring out if a different, even oddball, suggestion might make your opponents budge from their entrenched position.
Tough: Come at your opponents from a different angle. Redefine success in a broader context. Be creative and surprising.
Mean: Once you’ve defined the game (say, getting a Supreme Court Justice confirmed), focus relentlessly on that objective, ignoring all other alternatives, no matter the cost to both sides.
Meets legitimate, fair standards
How do you measure what makes sense? How much should the budget include for military expenditures, for example? To answer these questions, you need objective standards both sides can agree on. (For example, how much do other countries spend? How much are we spending on other things? How much does the military say it needs? How will the spending be paid for?) No one conducts negotiations in a vacuum — external standards are the way you figure out what’s reasonable.
Tough: Research different ways to measure success. Demonstrate how standards have shifted so the negotiation is about something different, and more advantageous to you.
Mean: Choose a standard as a hill to die on, such as the magnitude of a trade deficit. Concentrate on winning on that standard, even if it means you lose in some other dimension.
Is better than your alternatives
HNP introduced the concept of a BATNA — best alternative to a negotiated agreement. It’s basically your walk-away position. In any negotiation, there is always the alternative to give up. The principled negotiator recognizes this and works on improving their BATNA — or making their opponent’s worse.
Tough: Explore alternatives. Who else could get you what you want? How else could you accomplish your goals? The stronger your BATNA, the more you can ask for. At the same time, the tough negotiator figures out what the other side’s BATNA is. Consider the Democrats’ position in the Supreme Court battle. What will Trump do if he can’t get Kavanaugh through the Senate? He’ll try again with someone else. The longer the Kavanaugh negotiations go on, the harder that becomes — which is why they’re trying to slow things down.
Mean: The mean negotiator focuses only on winning. This leaves them holding the bag if things fall through. It’s all or nothing — sounding “tough” may mean giving up and being worse off than when you started.
Comprises clear, realistic commitments
The negotiation doesn’t end with the agreement. After it’s done, you and your negotiating partner have to live with it. How will you enforce what you’ve agreed upon?
Tough: Build mechanisms into the agreement to enforce it, like the weapons inspections in the Iran deal. An agreement without teeth isn’t worth a thing.
Mean: Focus on crushing your opponent. The problem with this, of course, is that a foe, once destroyed, has trouble living up to its commitments. This is what the allies did to Germany in World War I, and it led to World War II.
Is the result of effective communication
You can’t negotiate if the other side can’t hear you. This means using language that encourages others to climb on board, or at least engage, so you can find a negotiated solution.
Tough: Figure out how the other side talks. Use language that they’re comfortable with to gain advantage.
Mean. Be insulting and make up disparaging nicknames for people. Make sure people know you see them as the enemy. Then later, when you need their help, see how well that works out. This is playing out right now, with supporters of Ted Cruz’ Senate campaign opponent Beto O’Rourke driving around Texas with trucks that show Trump’s mean tweets about Cruz.
— Antonio (@AntonioArellano) September 12, 2018
Helps build the kind of relationship you want
This is the most important part of any negotiation. It’s not an ending. It’s the start of a long-term situation that you hope will be beneficial for you.
Tough: Think ahead to the future relationship. What will make it better for you? Focus on that, not on the optics in the short term.
Mean: Focus on winning, no matter how miserable you’ll be with the long-term result.
The missing piece: the audience
In politics, more so than any other negotiating forum, there is another element: the electorate and the media. The media tends to put everything in terms of wins and losses. And this influences the voters. So politicians have to think not just about what’s good for the country and for them, but what will look good.
This is dangerous. Think about George W. Bush’s pose on the aircraft carrier with the Mission Accomplished banner. The mission wasn’t accomplished. It looked good, but ultimately, winning the peace was harder than winning the war.
The challenge with winning over voters with quick “wins” of this kind is whether those wins eventually pay off. This is the biggest danger for Republicans right now (and for any other politician who tries to follow in Trump’s footsteps). When Miami is underwater, the wage gains for the working class have failed to materialize, and China tariffs have raised the prices of everything in Wal-Mart, the electorate may turn on those who delivered the quick “wins.”
Negotiation is hard. Being tough means being smart. It doesn’t consist of being mean. And negotiators who are more mean than smart will end up paying the price for their arrogance, sooner or later.