How to negotiate in collaborative problem-solving mode

In a series of previous posts, I wrote about how being emotionally intelligent makes us more competent leaders and comes in handy when we’re faced with conflict management.

In this post, I’m writing about negotiating in a collaborative problem-solving mode that keeps the conversation going.

Almost everything in life requires good negotiation but we’re often afraid of it and simply avoid it. Avoidance is bad because we can’t get better at something without taking the risk, practising, failing and learning what works.

I compiled a list of the techniques I’ve applied in my career so far.

Mirror to listen better

I already wrote about active listening in conflict management. It’s no surprise that active listening is an important technique in negotiations as well.

To sum up the points in my other post:

  • Don’t listen with the intent to reply. You’ll be overwhelmed by the voices in your head and miss important information revealed between the lines, in the tone of voice and body language.
  • Focus on authenticity, not on the words. Listen because you care to understand the other person.
  • Ask the right questions. Ask open-ended questions and paraphrase to clarify and confirm, especially in tense situations. Remember that their intent is probably not the same as your worst assumption.
  • Acknowledge the other person’s feelings. Feelings are not something to be brushed off as weakness. It takes great strength to acknowledge them out loud.

Mirroring is this set of techniques packaged in a word. It’s a way to instil similarity between the people, which facilitates bonding and mutual understanding, in other words, empathy.

Good negotiation is not a zero-sum game, with a winner and a loser. Doing it this way will most likely result in a one-time deal.

Negotiation is about collaborative problem-solving. For example, we can alleviate some mental pressure when making an important decision by looking at things like a bunch of trade-offs and negotiate a fair outcome for everyone concerned.

The tone of voice used in mirroring can have different outcomes. In the book Never Split the Difference, the authors propose three tones of voice:

  • The playful voice: that’s the default voice of an easy-going person. It encourages a playful and positive attitude. People underestimate self-deprecating humour in times of emergencies. I remember a time when my mom shouted at me because I scraped my knees as if this would undo the damage. Don’t be that parent or manager. First, put everyone at ease to solve the crisis without additional pressure. Then take the time to learn from it.
  • The late-night FM DJ voice: that’s speaking slowly and calmly, with a downward pitch. This voice inspires trustworthiness and authority without triggering defensiveness.
  • The assertive voice: it’s best used in exceptional circumstances because it can trigger defensiveness and pushback.

Label feelings to show empathy

Listening and empathising is necessary but not sufficient when things don’t go smoothly. Once you’ve understood the other’s perception of the situation and their intent, you have to acknowledge each other’s feelings.

Acknowledgement is incredibly important when you feel everyone is getting defensive.

I have to admit that, as much as I want to hear what you have to say, I’m feeling a little defensive right now.

This technique releases pressure and brings back the focus on problem-solving.

I now understand that you walked away feeling isolated and lonely. I also walked away from the meeting feeling unheard and dismissed. Now that we really understand each other, what’s a good way to resolve this problem?

Trying to continue the conversation without this step is like beating around the bush. Water can’t flow easily through a clogged pipe. Unblock it to get to the point of the negotiation. It shows strength, not weakness, to be vulnerable and talk about feelings.

Say Yes and…stand your ground

I wrote before about the Yes, and… technique. You can say No by saying a conditional Yes.

Nobody I’ve met so far practices this technique better than my co-founder, Emily. After working with her for some time and asking her to coach me, I finally started to apply it well. We used it in our conversations with a client when we felt their requests were unworkable but still wanted to keep the negotiation open for a fair solution.

Here are some key points to apply Yes and…successfully.

Break things down to reveal the complexity

Sometimes you get an outrageous request, like being asked to write a research report by 5 pm on the day. Your knee-jerk reaction is to say No because it seems impossible.

There are some issues with saying No immediately:

  • The requester might not understand the amount or complexity of the work involved.
  • You assumed they want your highest quality work, when in fact, they want a quick brief.

You can say a better No in the following way:

Yes, I can put together this report and to produce it, I have to do primary and secondary research, write-up and proof-reading.
Since you want it with such short notice, I need your help finding someone to help me with the primary research and someone with the proof-reading.
Or, if you think that’s too much, I can quickly gather some secondary data and send you a draft by 5 pm.
If you give me until tomorrow at 5 pm, I can find two or three participants available to answer a few short questions by tomorrow morning.
And if you give me a couple more days, I can find five or six participants to schedule longer interviews with, potentially create nice infographics and a do thorough proof-reading before presenting it.
What would you have me do?

They now have a clearer picture of what they’ve asked for and the option to make a decision about trade-offs between speed and quality.

Present some viable alternatives

Sometimes you simply can’t accommodate the request because you have too much on your plate. Or you’ve already agreed to a roadmap and this request is outside of it.

This situation can happen in a couple of cases:

  • The person asking is not aware of other things you’re working on.
  • They changed priorities and forgot to communicate it to you.

You can remind them like this:

Yes, it sounds like an important report that you need urgently and I would like to help you. Since we’ve already agreed on a timeline for this other thing I’m doing, the best thing is to help you find someone who’s available immediately to start working on the report.


Yes, it sounds like an important report that you need urgently and I would like to help you. Since we’ve already agreed on a timeline for this other project, I can swap things around and delay working on it for a couple of days, so I can immediately start working on this report instead.

Don’t over-explain your reasons

I wrote before about speaking in short sentences to sound confident and strengthen the message.

Some of us are prone to over-explaining because we value transparency and want to make sure we’re not misunderstood. Certain people get the wrong impression, that perhaps we’re stressed, confused or trying to hide something and justify it. It has the totally opposite effect!

It’s best to avoid over-explaining unless we know the audience or we feel it’s necessary. It’s a tricky balance.

Don’t mislabel to get attention

The book Never Split the Difference recommends getting people to utter the word No because it puts them at ease to say what they truly want. For example, instead of asking “Do you have a few minutes to talk?” you can ask “Is now a bad time to talk?”. This use of No is pretty innocent.

When someone is ignoring you and you want to forcefully engage their attention, you can make them say No by intentionally mislabelling their feelings or intent, for example, “It seems to me that you have given up on this project”. This is the opposite of the labelling technique above.

I’m not a fan of mislabelling. I feel that in contrast to Yes and… this is not putting people in problem-solving mode but manipulating them.

Contrasting: emphasise what you want them to think

Contrasting is simple: you emphasise what you want others to think in contrast to what you don’t want them to think. It works in multiple situations.

To apply it in the unexpected report scenario, you can phrase it like this:

I don’t want you to think that I don’t want to help you with this report because I truly do. At the same time, I want you to know that I’m working hard to finish this other work because it’s important for X and Y. I really appreciate your understanding. Let’s see if there are other ways to help you. Perhaps I can recommed you someone available immediately?

The consistency trap: saying Yes once doesn’t mean indefinitely

Sometimes we want to appear consistent in decision-making, out of fear of being perceived as weak or whimsical, but I think this is particularly damaging for a leader.

People make decisions with the information they have at a certain point in time and in a certain context. This is far better than not making any decision. Indecision is the only decision that we don’t make consciously, so we can’t learn anything from it.

We also know that change is the only constant in life. Information changes, context changes so it makes sense that decisions change too.

You might have said Yes to a project or a career path at some point. It doesn't mean you’re trapped to say Yes forever. If things change (and they will), you are very much entitled to re-think your decision and say No.

Maybe one of the techniques described above will come in handy and make things easier.

Technical founder excited to develop products that improve peoples’ lives. My best trait is curiosity. I can sky-dive and be afraid of heights at the same time.

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