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

The Negotiation Skills Company -- Newsletter February 2004

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The occasional newsletter of
The Negotiation Skills Company, Inc. (TNSC)

Number 28, February 2004


The occasional newsletter of The Negotiation Skills Company, Inc. (TNSC)


Several weeks ago Professor William A. Donohue of Michigan State University and author of Managing Interpersonal Conflict (Sage, 1992) introduced me to the importance of codes in negotiation.

People often think of codes as ways to limit other's access to communication - the way spies transmit coded messages in times of war. Or codes are viewed as mechanisms for transmitting information using symbols that require common understanding between the sender and receiver - like the Morse Code or the abbreviations one finds in the text messages folks send using their cellular telephones.

According to Professor Donohue, codes are much more than that. Codes establish the informal rules for structuring the communication patterns in a negotiation. In a sense, his analysis follows the famous statement of Marshall McLuhan, "The medium is the message." If you understand the communication rules that evolve in negotiation you can make sure they don't restrict the deal you are trying to put together. But more importantly, you can learn to shape the rules to your advantage.

For example, negotiators may adopt a very formal code with little humor and personal reflections, and long serious speeches with big words. If this rule is reinforced over several minutes or even sessions, it may be difficult to break into a more informal code that is often more useful for understanding the depth of the issues facing the negotiators.

Generally speaking, a negotiator's code reflects personal style: language full of expletives, using physical posture to attempt to dominate the conversation, or speaking very softly to force others to work hard to hear what is said. In other cases, cultural issues may be reflected in a person's negotiation code: the use of exaggerated language to raise the emotional level of the discussion, cultural differences over personal space, arriving late - or making another party wait. The key is understanding whether the code that emerges in the negotiation either helps or hinders a constructive deal. Sometimes people enter a negotiation ready to make a deal but the code that emerges gets in the way.

How can negotiators understand the code? First, it is important to listen for the elements of the code: the volume of a negotiator's voice, the use or avoidance of humor or personal touches in the communication process, the relative formality of a negotiator's dress, even the decision on how many people should be on each negotiating team. That is, each negotiator needs to analyze his or her own 'hot buttons' when it comes to the communications process. Asking colleagues and friends for their observations about one's approach to communication can enhance the analysis. It is important to understand your own set of sensitivities so that you can figure out whether another negotiating party's code is leading you away from the substantive issues and giving your emotions too much influence over your negotiation style.

Second, once you have analyzed your own code, all the various ways you communicate beyond the mere use of words, then you can do a better job of responding to the communication of others by constantly analyzing their own negotiation coding. Is it what they say or how they say it that has the greatest impact on you? If you recognize that their code threatens to be an obstacle to a proper focus on the issues, how can you bring those coding issues into the discussion to clear the air and make sure neither party is led astray by unintended messages from the other? By the same token, you must also do your best to analyze whether one of the parties is attempting to manipulate the process by utilizing a communications code that complicates the issue about which you should be collaborating. Shape the coding rules to facilitate collaboration.

Years ago a friend told me, "Don't get hung up on style." He was off the mark. Communications style sets the tone of negotiations, and unless we address the issues thus raised, we reduce the likelihood that the negotiation will yield a wise and durable result.


Our trainers continue to work with a varied array of clients from retailers and banks to aerospace organizations and information technology companies in several countries. With members of our crew 'on the ground' on three continents, TNSC's global reach gives us the capacity to provide services where our clients are and when they need us. In a five-week period in January and February we're delivering programs in the US, UK, Poland, and Russia.

Negotiating Skills for Managers is now available in English, Spanish, two versions of Chinese, and Russian. The Korean edition will appear later in 2004. The Negotiator's Interest Map, our negotiation planning software, has been trademarked and should be available for sale before the summer.

We have played an active role coaching negotiations concerning the preservation of indigenous forests in South America - involving US retail organizations, US environmental groups, Chilean tree farmers, Chilean environmental groups, indigenous people in Chile, and other parties. The process continues, but has already yielded significant results.


"Pretend everyone that you meet has an invisible sign around their neck saying, 'Make me feel important.'"
Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics

All the best,
Steve Cohen

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