Monday, December 6, 2010

Say Something

Tyler Gitou was sitting in his office when Verdi walked in and flopped into a chair.

“How are the negotiations going, Verdi?” Tyler asked.

“Hard,” Verdi sighed. “The other negotiation team seems to be… mad at me!”

Tyler set his glasses on the desk. “Why are they mad?”

“I don’t know!” Verdi said. “But every time I say something, one of their team members snaps at me, then another snaps at me. It’s really tense in there.”

“Why don’t you say something? Ask what the problem is,” Tyler said. “When you go back into the room, open with, ‘Before we get started, I just wanted to ask if there is some problem I need to be aware of. It feels like there’s a lot of tension in the room and your team may be upset with me about something.’”

Verdi jumped up. “Thanks, Mr. Gitou. I will try that.”

Two hours later Tyler saw Verdi getting a cup of coffee. “How did your afternoon session go?” Tyler asked.

“It went great, thanks. I did just as you said. I asked why everyone seemed so tense. Nobody said anything, but it was like watching air come out of a balloon; everyone on the other side of the table exhaled and seemed to relax. There was never an explanation of why they were tense in the first place!”

Tyler nodded. “I’m glad it worked out. There is a concept in psychology called ‘social proof’. It’s the influencing effect we feel when others do something and we feel we have to follow. Like at a performance when the audience rises to give a standing ovation. You may not think the performance warrants a standing ovation, but you feel compelled to stand rather than be the one person sitting down. Sometimes, when you’re in a group for too long, a social proof-type dynamic builds. Pretty soon everyone starts behaving the same way, though they don’t know why.

“Sounds like a ‘pile on’ effect,” Verdi said.

“It was in your case. Someone in the room, probably the lead negotiator or other authority figure, said or did something that was sharply critical of your team. When someone with more information or authority behaves a certain way, others around him or her will follow that behavior because they don’t have enough information to know what they should do. Once the lead person on the other team established ‘This is how we will talk to Verdi’s team’ that behavior continued and compounded.”

“Until I asked the critical question, ‘Why are you all doing this?’ No one had an answer, and it just stopped,” Verdi said.

“Exactly,” Tyler said. “This is why I always say, ‘prepare and aware.’ A lot of people prepare for their negotiations, but once in the room they don’t maintain awareness of how the emotional dynamic is changing. To keep both parties collaborative and unconditionally constructive, a Deal Whisperer stays aware of group mood swings. And if the emotions seem to be headed off-track, don’t be afraid to say something. When the parties share a common goal, everyone appreciates someone who keeps the group focused on achieving the goal. That’s the role of the Deal Whisperer.”

(For an amusing example of social proof in action, watch this video from the old Candid Camera TV show.)

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