Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Do unto others as your BATNA dictates

Audio books aren't for me: El trains rumble by and I miss the speaker's main point. But a co-worker offered his copy of the negotiation primer "Getting To Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In" and after months of delay I became a quick study. Most curious were the detailed answers to "Ten Questions People Ask," particularly one which seemed to need no reply: "Should I be fair if I don't have to?"

Getting to YesYet when "Getting to Yes" was first published in 1981, it seemed common sense that the negotiation playing field needed a winner and a loser. The authors popularized the notion that bargaining could get both sides what they want, making them more satisfied with their deal and more committed to making it work.

Harvard Professor Roger Fisher, the primary author, does not narrate the audio book, which sounds more like cable reruns of "Win Ben Stein's Money." Too bad, because Fisher coached negotiations at a high level, including advising on the Camp David accords. Now, his conflict-resolution strategy is heard all over.

Tenant's advocates use it to iron out landlord disputes. Multinational treaties attempt to to give all parties bragging rights. It even came into play in our household's early spring cleaning: My wife seems to want everything thrown out, but what's she's after is simply cutting the clutter. If I find a way to organize it, I can keep it. This can mean a trip to Container Store for even more stuff.

Two important things to remember are that win-win negotiations aren't necessarily about money, and they demand better communication skills. The long view of negotiation is that people need to be treated fairly, they don't want a drawn-out negotiation, they want a predictable result and one that's easy to explain.

So it's not a matter of meeting in the middle, but finding common ground wherever it lies, or at least sizing up the other-side's Plan B -- what Fisher called the best alternative to a negotiated agreement, or BATNA -- and trying to offer something more appealing.

Like building any relationship, a lot of this comes down to listening: Instead of thinking ahead to their next statement, bargainers have to hear what the other side is saying and react in imaginative ways -- perhaps laying out not one solution but a number of them, without committing to any of them.

Familiar coaching skills also come into play; Keep the discussion helpful and upbeat, show that you appreciate the other side's position, and make yours more appealing by addressing the other party's concerns.

Most important, be prepared. Know your alternatives, and the other side's as well, and the outcome stands a better chance of being an improvement for both.

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