December 03, 2020

Interest-based negotiation for beginners

There are certain principles of conflict resolution we’re all familiar with. Always use “I statements.” Focus on behaviors, not emotions. Be open to solutions. If you’ve tried these and left feeling like nothing was resolved, you’re not alone. (Seriously — 70% of employees are actively avoiding potential conflicts in the workplace, and past negative experiences are the #1 reason.)

One reason for this is that workplace conflict comes in all sizes, and most people don’t have the tools to manage the variety. To make it even more complicated, the majority of conflicts have a mixed scope: the source of the conflict sounds trivial on paper, but it has a very real impact on you. These can often be the most challenging to address. You may ask yourself, “How do I bring this up without seeming petty?” or, “How can I articulate what I’m angry about when I don’t exactly know the answer myself?”

Interest-based negotiation is useful in conflicts of all sizes, and is an especially perfect fit for those “mixed scope” ones. Interest-based negotiation is a conversation framework that seeks a win-win outcome by specifically addressing the needs and fears of all parties. If you bristle at the word “compromise,” you’ll love this part: an interest-based approach sees conflict not as a zero-sum game, but as an opportunity for everyone to succeed.

The win-win, opportunity-oriented mindset that accompanies interest-based negotiation is baked into Bravely’s unique coaching methodology, the Momentum Method. While a magician never reveals their tricks, a Bravely Pro doesn’t keep all their secrets to themselves. In that spirit, here are the basic steps to know if you want to introduce interest-based negotiation into your life at work:

  1. Identify your needs or fears

This is the “why do I feel this way” question we mentioned earlier, and it has to be answered first for this process to work. Skipping it (which many of us often do without realizing) is like getting stuck on a solution before you even know the problem.

Every conflict starts from what we’ll call a “position,” or the thing we want. All sides of a conflict have their own position — what makes it a conflict is that those positions are somehow at odds with each other.

Let’s start with this simple example: your manager keeps sending you emails on Sunday, or late at night. Each one that comes in fills you with dread and anger, and you feel obligated to respond right away. The situation is damaging your working relationship.

Your position is clear: I want to be free from answering emails when I’m not working.

But why?

Maybe you’ve never thought about the why, because you think it goes without saying: of course you don’t want to be bothered with more work during your free time! Who does? — But articulating the “why” is how you get to a solution:

Why do you want to be free from answering emails when you’re not working?

  • It’s disruptive to your family life.
  • It makes walking away from your phone impossible: an email could come at any moment!
  • It prevents you from turning off “work brain” and getting the rest you need in order to succeed during the work week.
  • The tasks being requested are just plain annoying, and not how you want to spend your weekend.

Now we’re getting somewhere.

  1. Empathy: identify the other party’s needs or fears

You know your reasons for wanting the off-hours emails to stop, but what about why they’re being sent in the first place? Your next step is to put yourself in your manager’s shoes and, with the information you have, think about their needs.

In our example, your manager’s position is, “I want to send emails whenever it’s convenient for me.”

Challenge your assumptions of the other person’s interests. In this example, your frustration about receiving off-hours emails is attached to the need to reply. But what if “I need to reply to these right away” is an assumption?

Let’s say that in this case, it is — that your manager has never actually said you had to reply outside of work hours. What if their interest is actually: “Communicating ideas and questions when I think of them keeps me from forgetting them later.”?

In more complex situations, you may realize that there are countless possible interests of the other party. Consider talking things out with a trusted friend or coach to expand your thinking. The goal here is not to replace your existing assumption with a new assumption; it’s to break out of the thought pattern that has you trapped in an unresolved conflict.

  1. Analyze potential solutions

The next phase is to think strategically and plan ahead for a conversation with the other party in the conflict — in our example, your manager. You want to come to the conversation with a solutions-oriented mindset, and this step is when you start exploring those solutions, with the first two steps as your guide.

One solution you may think of in our example is to set an expectation with your manager that you’ll turn off your email notifications outside of work hours, and provide an alternate mode of communication for true emergencies.

For any of the possible solutions you come up with, think about the outcomes: what do you think would happen if you tried that? Your instinct might be to answer that with, “They’d never go for that idea” — again, push yourself to challenge those assumptions and open yourself to the possibility of a different outcome.

In a Bravely coaching session, this phase might include articulating a specific action plan to your coach, planning to hold yourself accountable to following through, and even role-playing any conversation you might have as part of your action plan.

  1. Having the conversation

You’ve done the pre-work, and the conflict resolution principles we mentioned at the top of the post can now be wielded effectively. You’re ready to come to the table and communicate these elements, in this order:

  • The behavior you’re addressing
  • The impact of that behavior on you
  • Your ideal outcome
  • A proposed solution to reach that outcome
  • An opening for the other party to react

Remember, nothing has to be resolved in a single conversation — some conflicts are just more layered, or involve too many parties, for that to be feasible. Still, end your conversation with a clear next step, even if that step is just to resume the discussion at a later time.

Final thought: When it comes to workplace conflict, it’s time to let go of the idea that you’re in a zero-sum game. If you’re stuck in a conflict and the situation’s gotten stagnant, you can use interest-based negotiation to break free.

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