Be Well Prepared In Negotiation Relationships

Am I ready to deal with the relationship? A critical element in any negotiation – and one that frequently causes the most anxiety – is the quality of the working relationship we have with the other side. A good working relationship can scuttle a deal even when, at least on paper, both parties could have been better off had they agreed. We need not like each other or even share values or interests. But so long as we find ourselves negotiating, we would like to use a process that enables us to handle our differences well this time and makes it easier to negotiate the next time.

The quality of a relationship is not just something that happens. It is the product of how we deal with each other. The well-prepared negotiator thinks about how we ought to deal with each other and then plans steps to carry us in that direction. To build an effective working relationship, such steps should increase mutual understanding, build trust and respect, encourage mutual persuasion (rather than coercion), enable us to keep reason and emotion in balance, and, of course, enhance communication.

Among the most common – and most human – errors negotiators tend to make is to lump together the people and the problem. That is, we tend to confuse matters of relationship – how we deal with disagreement, hurt feelings, etc., with those of substance – numbers, dates, terms, and conditions. Failing to distinguish between the two as we get ready to negotiate is likely to leave us trying to fix a relationship by making substantive concessions, and vice versa. Neither will work. If we have a relationship problem – for example, lack of trust or respect – trying to deal with it by dropping our price or agreeing to accept their conditions on some substantive term will not remedy that problem. On the contrary, it may well teach them that to get concessions from us, all they need to do is act hurt or distrustful.

Perhaps because we spend the first years of our lives in relationships over which we have little control, many negotiators tend to treat their relationship with the other negotiator as something that “just occurs,” a product of the situation. If the relationship sours, our usual response may be to blame the other side. In either case, we may assume that there is little we can do to improve the situation. If there is little we can do anyway, then why prepare? That line of thinking creates a self-fulfilling prophecy and we do, indeed, exercise little control over the quality of our relationships.

You cannot cure hurt feelings with substantive concessions, any more than you can make up for a significant loss of money with an apology. Nor should you attempt to do so. If you allow substantive and relationship problems to become mixed up, you confuse matters and undermine both your relationship – treating it as if it were for sale, or allowing it to be held hostage to an important term – and your ability to negotiate a deal on the merits.

In order to keep relationship and substantive issues separate during a negotiation and to deal with each of them well; you need to identify which are “substantive” issues or problems and which are “relationship” or “people” problems. Substantive problems pertain to the content of the negotiation – price, terms, conditions, dates, and so forth. Substantive issues tend to be those that we think should “be resolved” by the end of the negotiation. On the other hand, relationship issues tend to affect the negotiation itself. We may feel we need to deal with them in order to reach agreement on the substantive issues. Whether management will cover all the employees’ health insurance costs is a substantive issue. The insults that labor and management may be trading in the newspaper involve relationships. Keeping these two lists separate will help you make sure that you address both types of concerns, without trading off one against the other in ways that will be troublesome in the long term.

Once you have identified the substantive and relationship issues, you will need to think about how to deal with them. For the substantive problems, you will need to be well-prepared on interests, options, legitimacy, alternatives, and commitments. For the relationship issues, you will need to think about steps that you can take that will help improve the relationship. Any steps you take should be “unconditionally constructive” – that is, you should do those things that are good for you and help improve the relationship, whether or not the other side reciprocates.

By deciding to be “unconditional” we take responsibility and, to some extent, control over the quality of our working relationship. We focus on what we can do to improve the relationship, instead of feeling powerless because they are being negative. By making sure we are “constructive”, we look to build the relationship on a solid foundation. This is particularly important in nurturing long term relationships. That foundation should take into account our interests and should help aim the relationship in a direction in which we would like it to continue. So we do not simply “give in” for the sake of the relationship.