Are All Negotiations The Same?

One thing that surprises me about the negotiation training industry is that so many negotiation trainers advocate the idea that almost all negotiations are similar, and that the point of departure is the assumption that there is some kind of conflict present between the respective positions assumed by the parties to the negotiation.

This is a fear-based mindset.

What you focus on in life is what you’ll get more of, and if your basic assumption is that negotiation is centered on resolving conflict (rather than the act of simply doing business) then I suspect that you will find your life is full of conflict.

Suggesting that all negotiations are the same is like saying that all sports are the same. Following that logic, a great competitive sailor is also a great marathon runner. While you certainly will share many characteristics with other athletes—eating healthy, thinking competitively, displaying a high degree of training discipline—your particular code of sport will require you to master vastly different techniques and tactics than other athletes in order for you to be successful.

It is no different in the world of doing business. As a successful and professional business negotiator, you will share many of the characteristics of successful negotiators in areas like conflict resolution or hostage negotiations, but you will also be the master of many business-specific negotiation strategies, tactics, and techniques.

All Change, No Change?

If you have been in the business world for any length of time, you have likely observed that our collective culture has completely transformed from what was the norm as little as fifty years ago:

● We work more on our own and less in task-driven, collegial, industrial settings.

● We obtain and consume food in ways that might have confused our parents and grandparents.

● Our populations are congregating in urban centers more than at any time in history.

● We spend our leisure time in ways that would have been unfamiliar to previous generations.

● We structure organizations and governments more democratically than ever before.

● We interact with others using communication platforms almost unrecognizable from the way the world operated even as recently as 2000.

By contrast, the way that negotiation skills development has been taught has largely remained unchanged. So much has changed in how we communicate (using email, phones, social media and video conferencing in addition to face to face meetings) and with whom we communicate (people from all over the world rather than only people from our own cultural background), that it has rendered obsolete much of what has been traditionally taught in the negotiation skills development classroom.

So much of what was advocated as negotiation best practice was (and still is) founded on a flawed, linear assumption that largely discounts human nature and revolves around a mono-cultural mode of interaction rooted in a North American, British, or European perspective.

You see, while the world is changing around us, due to the runaway train of globalization, anthropologists and psychologists largely agree that human nature itself has not changed much over thousands of years.

Against this backdrop, I find it astonishing that so much of what continues to be taught by many so-called “negotiation experts” has its roots in:

● research conducted mainly among groups of undergraduate students

● the specific context of conflict resolution scenarios (e.g., labor relations, peace treaties, big corporate disasters, etc.)

Let me also be clear on this point: while there is useful learning to be gleaned from the research studies done by the academic institutions, the premise for that research is too narrow and, to a large extent, discounts the lowest common denominator that ties people together. This research has largely ignored human nature and has narrowed the focus of what is deemed to be “negotiation” to such a niche definition that it mostly revolves around finding ways to reach agreement around a set of so-called “conflicting interests.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, there often will be a conflict of interests present between parties to a negotiation. But to start with the assumption that negotiation is only a means of conflict resolution or closing formal transactions is to completely ignore the original roots of the word (negotiatus: to do business) and creates an expectation that does not best serve the objective of reaching lasting and mutually beneficial agreements.

I like how Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines the term, human nature: “The ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that are common to most people and the nature of humans; especially: the fundamental dispositions and traits of humans.”

If we can agree that human nature is common to all humans and that (for the moment, at least) we negotiate with humans, then why would we choose to put the focus of negotiation on finding solutions to conflicting interests, when the reality is that, at a root level, we all share the same set of interests?

Wouldn’t it make more sense to tap into that which is shared and common amongst all people and peoples—irrespective of gender, culture, or age—to move toward reaching an agreement?


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