I recently led a negotiation skills workshop for a client. Revisiting material I’ve collected on negotiations over the years, I was struck once again by a principle called “distributive negotiation,” a process that takes a different perspective on getting what you want. I believe the principle is worth thinking about.
Technically, negotiation is a give and take process where two parties come together to reach agreement or solve a conflict. The parties have different, and often conflicting, goals, needs and perspectives. The key word here is “different.”
Think about it. Negotiation is a part of business as well as our everyday lives. The word rarely brings happy thoughts. For me, I think of my years working in a union environment where negotiation often meant conflict, secrets, mistrust and anger. No one I know likes buying a car. Negotiating a salary or asking for a raise brings knots to most people’s stomachs. Deciding where to go to dinner with a friend can take forever. And parents do it with children all the time.
The underlying principle of traditional negotiation is competition – I win, you lose. If not competition, compromise is often the fallback in these situations. While there may be times to compromise, this really means that we both give up some of what we want – lose/lose.
A different way to approach the situation is distributive negotiation, a process based in collaboration. Can we work hard enough, together, to find a solution where we both win? I learned this lesson on a small scale years ago, and it has stuck with me. While working in California, a friend and I were negotiating where to go to dinner. I really wanted Chinese. She really wanted Mexican. We both wanted a great restaurant on the beach. The concierge suggested Poncho and Wong’s, a wonderful fusion place on the beach very close to our hotel. Guacamole and egg rolls. Win/win.
So, in negotiation, why do we not think win/win? First, it’s not what we’ve learned to do. We go in looking for a fight. Second, we’re conditioned to see compromise as positive, seeking middle ground is a good thing. Rarely do we see compromise as both of us giving up something we value, a situation where we both lose. Third, distributive negotiations are grounded in trust and not in the mistrust of traditional negotiation processes. Trust is tied to relationship, and relationship is rarely a focus of traditional negotiations. And finally, the process takes time, and this means it takes patience. Not usually a strong suit in business or in our day-to-day lives.
Next time you’re in a situation where you must negotiate for what you want, be aware of your initial mindset. There just may be a Poncho and Wong’s solution if you’re willing enough and patient enough to look for it. And everybody wins!
An experienced business executive and organizational consultant, Jan Flynn teaches at the J. Whitney Bunting College of Business at Georgia College & State University.