Negotiating Common Ground

Earlier this year, The Design Gym teamed up with TED and a few of their partners to design and deliver three discovery sessions at TED Summit 2019. We conducted a live social experiment on lifelong learning with Capita—exploring how TEDsters have cultivated curiosity throughout their life. We helped Summit attendees start to put their existing ideas (and some new ones from the conference!) into action with PMI. And we got to assist conflict resolution expert, Dr. Govinda Clayton, in teaching participants how to have difficult conversations by negotiating common ground with Doha Debates

It was an incredibly humbling and joyful experience. And as you read this intro, it’s probably not lost on you that that third discovery session is SUPER related to this quarter’s theme of uncomfortable conversations. Conflict, debate and negotiation often involve uncomfortable conversations.

Over the last few months, as I worked with Dr. Clayton on the design of the session, I knew that I was going to write a piece on the lessons I learned throughout the process, particularly how experts teach (and put into practice!) actual tested and effective conflict resolution techniques.

Knowing Your Negotiating Style

Ok, let’s start with some level-setting. We don’t all negotiate, or approach conflict, the same way. Knowing your own personal style of handling conflict—as well as the other person’s—is extremely helpful in navigating a difficult conversation and coming to some sort of productive solution. By having that clear understanding, it’ll help you better communicate with one another or, at a bare minimum, be prepared for what will happen.

So, what are we talking about when we say “negotiating style.” Well, imagine this: what if someone was facing you with their fist directly in front of your face. How might you get them to lower it? (Fun fact: this is how Dr. Clayton kicked off our discovery session).

Would you threaten them by raising your fist? Try to bribe them? How about trick them? Would you use a logical argument? Or perhaps, ask nicely?

The way you’d negotiate that situation is your negotiation style and, according to HBR, they typically fall into one of four categories: creating value, claiming value, empathizing with others and asserting yourself.

Understanding Positions and Interests

After determining our negotiation styles, the next step was to engage in some difficult conversations. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a learning experience without a tool or a framework to help us work through those conversations. 🙂 Enter: Positions and Interests. Ok, let’s break down this tool a bit further:

Positions are what people say they want—the what. They are demands focused on a single outcome. The result of negotiation on positions: Zero sum bargaining, inefficient outcomes.

Interests are why people want what they want—the why. They are positively-formulated motivations that are open to multiple solutions. They result in joint problem solving and innovative outcomes

So, how does this manifest in the real world? Positions and Interests exist in almost every scenario you can think of. Whether it’s in your personal life, trying to figure out where to go to dinner with your friends—I want to go to that restaurant tonight (position) vs. I’m trying to lose weight and would like to eat healthy (interest))—or in your professional life, when discussing a start time with someone you manage—you must be in early tomorrow (position) vs. I would really like you to finish this project by the end of the day (interest).

If this sounds slightly familiar to you, it’s because it probably is. In human-centered design, we often think of interests as “motivations” or “needs.” And we’re constantly trying to uncover them to help us design better products and services. But, how do we apply that to uncomfortable conversations?

Clayton, Govinda. 2019. Negotiating Common Ground Workshop.

Taking an Interest-based Approach to Conflict

Your first step is to give yourself the time and space to do some solo reflection. Think through it; what’s the reason for the difficult conversation? Perhaps it’s a negotiation for a raise or a particularly difficult feedback session you have to give (or receive). Now, think about what your interests are—the why’s? What would you like to get out of the conversation? And what might be some of the interests of the other person(s)? Remember, these are positively-formulated motivations that are open to multiple solutions. 

So, “I would like an annual salary of $100,000” is not an interest. “I’d like to feel that I’m equally compensated to my peers and adequately compensated for the value I bring” is an interest. 

Personally, I like taking multiple approaches to this reflection. I’ll start it on my own and then work with colleagues or friends who are close to the situation and can “role play” with me, taking the other person’s perspective. It’s a really great way to: 1. Keep you accountable that you’re formulating your thoughts as interests, and not positions, and 2.  to help you uncover interests of the other person that you may have not thought about or identified. 

Once you have all the interests identified, your next step is to do a bit of a brainstorm. Thinking about the conflict at hand, what are all of the possible solutions or outcomes that could be reached? Super important: they don’t need to be perfect or ideal. We’re in open here—the idea is to generate as many solutions as possible. 

After you’ve generated as many possible solutions as you can think of, the final step is to refine (or as we say, “explore”) them. Looking at your list, identify which outcomes satisfy at least one interest from each person/party, but ideally, multiple interests from each person/party. 

At the end, you want to try to walk away with at least 3-5 possible, ideal solutions that you can take with you into that conversation.

Navigating that Uncomfortable Conversation

Ok, I’m going to say something SHOCKING: humans are emotional creatures. And, as humans, it can be difficult to balance our emotions and interests with the emotions and interests of other people—especially when it appears that we don’t get along. But, by reframing our conflicts and changing the context from “what” into “why,” we’re more likely to reach optimal solutions. And sometimes, that’s enough of a win.

Jane Garcia Buhks
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