Why do we confuse "negotiation" and "confrontation"?

July 2019

To answer this question, we must remember that for there to be negotiation, there must be disagreement (Royer, un système de négociation pour le manager, 2019). The parties involved have divergent needs or interests and they will implement a strategy to obtain the most satisfactory agreement possible (Bazerman, 2007). Finally, the more long-term the will to reach an agreement, the more their search for solutions incorporates the needs of the opposing party (Fisher, Patton, & Ury, 2011).

Now, the problem we wish to address is: Why do we often approach a negotiation as if it were a confrontation, a battle to be won or even a war?

We don't negotiate "against" but "with" someone

Let us first address the register of language, since the way we name our acts is indicative of our unconscious understanding of them. Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear that we are going to "negotiate against someone", suggesting that there will be a winner and a loser. In reality, we should always think that we are negotiating "with" someone. Military vocabulary is also often used in this register with words such as "strategy", "tactics" or even worse "trap" or "sledgehammer argument". What about the "counterattacks" and "strategic retreats" that make any negotiator look like a modern gladiator in an arena where there must be only one winner left.

We must go back to the basics of our education to understand the association we make between negotiation and combat. We have been trained to fight to win. From an early age, we are pushed to be the best in the class. We reproduce these codes in our negotiations, often with little regard for the interests of the other side. The way our system works is based on a violent conception that there is right and wrong, that evil must be punished and good rewarded, and that power holds the trade-off between good and evil, good and bad, winner and loser (Rosenberg, 2015). This system also leaves little room for empathy and encourages a frantic pursuit of gain, sometimes without concern for the long-term consequences of these "victories".

As you will have understood, in our collective unconscious, negotiating is fighting.

To let the opponent win is to admit losing, we immediately position ourselves in a fighting position

A first explanation, beyond the system, could be that we have built this shell around us to respond to a deeply rooted reflex: the fear of losing. Since in our way of thinking, to let the opponent win is to admit to losing, we immediately position ourselves in a combat situation, with the firm intention to leave the minimum of feathers or to draw the greatest benefit. We have an aversion to losses that is far greater than the potential gains (Tversky, 1974). For this reason, negotiation is seen primarily from the perspective of risk of loss.

The fear of losing will, therefore, trigger a natural reaction that we all feel with varying levels of intensity when we enter the trading phase. This natural reaction, which is often referred to as "stress", makes us react in a different way from the one we adopt when we are in a situation of trust. The most striking effect of this adrenaline rush in our body is that it limits our ability to listen (Grimshaw, 2010). It is a bit like our whole being is trying to defend itself without even considering that the other party may have a solution to offer. When we train students in negotiation skills, we ask them to take on the roles of "negotiator" and "observer" within each team. In almost all cases, we find that the negotiator's ability to listen is greatly reduced or even destroyed. It is therefore up to the observer to provide the empathic look that the negotiator lacks. Unfortunately, we are often led to negotiate alone, without the help of an observer, and our limited ability to listen to the opposing party is detrimental to the richness of the exchanges. A few simple techniques can be used to combat this closing reflex. One of them is to reformulate the expectations of the other side. Reformulation (Royer, La négociation intégrale, 2019) brings three benefits: it makes us realize the underlying (sometimes well-intentioned) intentions of our interlocutor, it eliminates the errors of understanding that our "warrior" filter imposes on us, and finally, it indicates to our interlocutor that we are listening to his concerns. There are many other solutions to engage the "pump of reciprocity" and we develop them in our course "The 6 Acts of Negotiation".

If both parties strive and manage to collaborate, we can see that we are not in a confrontation but in a partnership

It is, therefore, possible to negotiate without confrontation. Indeed, the best negotiations are those in which the two parties exchange in order to understand the deep interests of their interlocutor with the aim of bringing them into line with their own. This is even truer in the professional context where the negotiator is usually not himself or herself the object of the negotiation (except in the case of a salary negotiation). Indeed, the negotiator is "only" the representative of his or her institution and is not "implicated" in the negotiation process. If the two parties make an effort and manage to work together, it is clear that this is not a confrontation but a partnership.

What do we need to do to get out of this archetype linked to our psychological construction? The answer is simple: increase our level of listening (Rosenberg, 2015). But listening with the goal of discovering and understanding the other's perspective is the intention that has a proven impact on the outcome of your negotiations (Galinsky, Maddux, Gilin, & White, 2008). In other words, no negotiation fails because of over-listening, but when listening is lacking.

Let us add, however, that good listening does not rule out firm words. This theory is perfectly illustrated by the case of hostage-taking negotiations that require a high level of listening and an unparalleled level of firmness.

Whether it is an instinctive or acquired reflex, confrontation is detrimental to the success of negotiation and there are other more effective ways than the balance of power to bring a negotiation to a successful conclusion. The greatest successes are promised to those who have sought to understand the needs and perspective of the other side rather than trying to impose their point of view. Like any skill, this skill can be acquired and this is the mission we have set ourselves in the "6 Acts of Negotiation" programme.

Grégoire Seigneur de Bast @Inness

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