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What good negotiators know

From Harvard to hostages

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Inventing options does not come naturally. Not inventing is the normal state of affairs, even when you are outside a stressful negotiation. If you were asked to name the one person in the world most deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize, any answer you might start to propose would immediately encounter your reservations and doubts. How could you be sure that that person was the most deserving?

— Roger Fisher and William Ury in Getting to Yes

Soon after the Harvard Negotiation Project commenced in 1979, its founders published Getting to Yes, which set the tone for business negotiations for three decades: Principled negotiation between amiable and rational players, each accounting for each other’s interests, baking a pie together for increased returns. In essence, how to collaboratively negotiate. The book defined the genre and dominated the niche for years.

Related titles, including Getting Past No (1991) and Difficult Conversations (1999) continue to sell. But newer books out of the Harvard Negotiation Project, including Negotiation Genius (2007) and Negotiating the Impossible (2016) suggest the public is fatigued by the academic perspective. Students’ anecdotes seem promising, but like a get-rich-quick-scheme, just about any advice will work for someone if enough people try it, despite the quality of the approach or technique.

How can we separate the wheat from the chaff? Readers were right to ask, What have these philosophers actually achieved in the business world? All this talk about collaboration. Is there no longer room for competition? What about winning?

Harvard vs Hostages

Are Harvard (and MIT) professors out of touch with the reality of their strategies in the real world, as Chris Voss and Tahl Raz suggest in Never Split the Difference? The authors argue Harvard assumes principled and generally cooperative negotiation counterparts. But in any conversation — and certainly in a negotiation — you are always dealing with a messy human. Actually, two messy humans, including yourself. Leaving aside whether the criticism is fair, Voss and Raz offer what they call tactical empathy — labeling another’s emotion — as part of a larger framework which accounts for both rationality and emotions in human decision-making. This offering was backed by clear examples of how this technique improved or even led to the resolution of hostage crises. (Compare with Roger Fisher and Dan Shapiro’s Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate).

While not immediately focused on all aspects of negotiation, titles like Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (2006), Pitch Anything (2011), and Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) have staying power thanks to their pragmatic or experimental lenses. Meanwhile, field-tested approaches to negotiation like Start with NO (2002) have perennial sales volume. Most recently, Never Split the Difference (2017) spent more than a year on Amazon’s Nonfiction Charts, demonstrating an appetite for accessible prescriptive nonfiction about negotiation.

Never Split the Difference’s field-tested approach, which builds on the blueprint of titles like Start with NO, is relayed through stories which entertain long enough to presumably solve the reader’s problem of negotiating better outcomes across an array of scenarios. While selling better than Harvard’s canon lately, readers might rightly wonder, But I’m not a hostage negotiator. In my negotiations, there is room to collaborate. But how do I? Voss and Raz are self-conscious about this omission, several times trying to persuade the reader that what works in hostage negotiations will also produce results in the reader’s personal life or in business. Even if you’re able to extract the negotiation strategies from the stories, you’ll see that Never Split the Difference focuses on the latter stages of a basic negotiation lifecycle, making the deal, and less time preparing for that negotiation, improving the relationship with counterparts, and seeking mutually value-creating pathways.

But I’m not a hostage negotiator. In my negotiations, there is room to collaborate. But how do I?

Prescriptions for Negotiating the Future

While hostage negotiation is a high-stakes affair, Voss himself claims hostage-taking is nevertheless a commodity business. The criminals want to return the hostages for money. Here, then, is his admission that hostage negotiation is ultimately a simple single-issue competitive negotiation. In the language of Getting to Yes, there is really only one position to bargain over. Even if you use Voss’s somewhat original tactical empathy, in a single-issue negotiation, tactics are about all you have.

Despite their readability, maybe books prior to Never Split the Difference aren’t resonating with readers because they don’t address the problems business, nonprofit, and government leaders are actually facing in the 21st century. Getting to Yes was a foundational text for a principled or even collaborative approach to negotiation, an ideal to strive for, or at least an approach that works very well under certain conditions. Never Split the Difference addresses part of Getting to Yes’s perceived shortcomings, particularly in the category of emotional empathy to be deployed at negotiation pivot points. Yet it too focuses on a narrow window of scenarios.

Furthermore, while Start with NO and Never Split the Difference do effectively combine stories with ideas to both entertain and help the reader achieve better negotiation outcomes, Start With No is nearing its twenty-year anniversary and Never Split the Difference draws on Chris Voss’s FBI experience that’s more than a decade old.

COVID and Culture

There is room for new titles on negotiation that help families negotiate their quarantined lifestyles or world leaders manage crises while accounting for cultural differences that may dislodge diplomacy before it can even get started.

BookClub: Virtual bookclubs, led by the authors themselves.




Virtual book clubs, led by the authors themselves.

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Erik Marty van Mechelen

Erik Marty van Mechelen

Artist seeking better explanations

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