Negotiation Skills Company, Inc.
Negotiation Skills Company, Inc.

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Getting to the Point with Interest-Based Negotiations

July/August 1998, Corporate University Review, (Page 42)

Heal thyself first

No matter where you're doing business, it's important to reach a common understanding with other people, whether it's across the street or around the world. But reaching common ground can sometimes be difficult if you're dealing with a different national or corporate culture. How can you get to the heart of a negotiation despite these issues?

That's where interest-based negotiations come in, says Steve Cohen, president of The Negotiation Skills Company(TNSC), a Boston-based international consulting firm specializing in negotiations training.

What interest-based negotiations do, in a nutshell, is determine what both parties' interests are and any other special interests they might represent. In other words, it isn't what they want, but why they want it that's more important, says Cohen.

By concentrating on the overall interests of both parties, issues of personal and cultural negotiation style can often be overlooked. Cohen says this is a point he stresses when teaching overseas: If you do a good job of negotiating, people from other cultures will respect you.

No matter the nationality of his students, they come into negotiations training for one important reason, he says."How do I get to the common interests and use them to build an agreement that is fair, durable and to which there is meaningful commitment on the part of all the parties."

This is because once all of the cultural aspects of a negotiation have been stripped away, the principle issue is interest. But how do you determine mutual interest in a cross-cultural negotiation?

An important element is to ask questions and listen closely, not so much to what issues they may propose or discuss, but as to the reasons why they are doing so. Once the reason behind the other party's stance is identified, it becomes much easier to try to reach common interests, he says.

The orange
Sometimes those interests may be completely different, but by determining the reasons behind each, a common solution can often be found.

As an example, Cohen cites a negotiation story about two sisters fighting over an orange. Both adamantly want the orange. However, when a parent separates the two why they want the orange, one sister says she wants to make juice and the other wants to use the rind for cooking.

"There you have a situation where the interests of the sisters has nothing in common. Each can get exactly what she wanted," he says.

Being able to handle your own internal issues, such as who takes responsibility for a decision, also goes a long way in the field. Negotiation training needs to be viewed on a step by step basis, companies that can negotiate internally have confidence in their actions, which is an important part ofwhat you communicate to people outside of the organization.

"People want to negotiate with someone who is confident that they can deliver' says Cohen. According to popular business mythology, one thing that drives American negotiators crazy in some countries is that the person they are negotiating with is only a messenger, with no authority to make a decision. In many countries, especially in Asia, this allows the company to privately reach a group consensus on a business decision without any one particular person having to take responsibility for it.

While this face-saving method is used by these cultures, what they may not understand is that an American, or someone trained in Western-style negotiation may lose face if he or she does not deliver as a consequence of going through the negotiations process. Here the ability to reach common ground is very important. "So one party saves face by not making a decision, and the other party saves face by making a decision on the very same issue,"Cohen says.

Good negotiation habits
Cohen recommends the following points for trainers preparing people for interest-based, cross-cultural negotiations.

  • Do your homework.
    This goes beyond intercultural negotiations to any encounter-every negotiation requires preparation.

  • Practice what you preach when it comes to hearing the other side.
    Cohen says he tries to listen to people, carefully and more than once, ascribing to the old adage "you learn more with your mouth closed and your ears open."

  • Don't rush to judgment.
    Negotiation that focuses on the interests and needs of both parties is more appealing than sitting in judgment or having judgment laid on you when you're negotiating. "The bottom line lesson in international negotiations is that a negotiator is not a judge," says Cohen. The negotiator's goal is to collaborate, to cooperate, and to undertake a joint venture rather than to force the other party into a mold.

  • No pigeonholing.
    Don't pin a too-specific description on the other party, whether it is their gender, ethnicity, education, occupation or business center - this is pigeonholing. The danger here is making a broad and potentially wrong assumption about someone. For example, assuming that someone from Egypt is a Moslem is unwise; Coptic Christians are the second largest religious group in the country.

  • Be flexible.
    Flexibility is important, says Cohen, because while pigeonholing is bad, you do have to make assumptions during a negotiation, if only to tell if you're on the right or wrong track. Being flexible involves knowing when those assumptions are wrong and letting go of them. - "You have to build in flexibility and your flexibility is derived from having made assumptions that you're prepared to abandon," he says.

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