Monday, August 23, 2010

Communication Breakdown

“What will it cost?”
A seemingly simple question, but one subject to potential misinterpretation.
In negotiation, communication will be the source of about 90% of your issues. Problems in communication have many dimensions: the parties don’t listen to one another; the parties make assumptions based on a few words; the parties don’t clarify meaning; or the parties don’t speak constructively, that is, acting as if they are working toward a common goal.

A Deal Whisperer is a strong advocate of clear and collaborative communication, seeking first to understand before trying to be understood. This requires commitment and focus to always trying to hear what the other party means as opposed to listening to what they are saying. For example:

One party refuses to follow a certain process, saying, “I hear last time we did that it was a disaster.” An undisciplined negotiator hears that and either 1. stops pursuing the issue, believing that she now will never get the other party to agree because the last time it was a huge failure or 2. rallies a string of arguments as to why the other party HAS to do it that way OR ELSE.

The Deal Whisperer hears something different. Let’s break it down.

“I hear”: The person at the table was not involved in the event last time, he only heard from someone else how it went. Like the children’s game Telephone, facts develop contours when passed from one person to another.

“last time”: was the previous event the same as this event? Or was whatever happened “last time” very different from what we are doing “this time”?

“we did that”: Who did that? Are the same people involved?

“it was a disaster”: What does he mean by “disaster”? Did it fail? Did it not meet the goals? Or was it just a lot of work that required late nights and weekends. (Ask some people about deals that require such hours and they will define those as disasters!)

In other words, the assertion “I hear the last time we did that it was a disaster” should not be viewed as a barrier to closing out an issue, but an opportunity to explore the facts of how the parties have worked together in the past and how they can improve the experience this time. It also builds rapport between the parties as they establish a precedent of understanding one another before making decisions.

Let’s go back to our original question: “What will it cost?” What would a Deal Whisperer want to know before answering the question?

“What will”: What is the other party looking for? A number? A range? A fixed fee? An estimate?

“it”: Do we know what “it” is? Don’t give a “cost” unless we know what we’re giving a “cost” for!

“cost”: In what? Money? Time? Fees? Total cost, including the other party’s internal costs?

Never take words lightly. Words are multidimensional, laden with history, emotion and perception. As a Deal Whisperer, make sure you understand the words being used before you choose your own to respond.

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