Negotiating for overall goals and not details
I have posted a number of times on negotiating in this blog, and in postings included in several of its directories (e.g. my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development and in Business Strategy and Operations.) I have also cited reference works that I have found useful in both my on the job experience and in teaching the art of negotiating:
• Ury, William. (1991) Getting to Yes: negotiating agreement without giving in. Penguin Books.
• Ury, William. (1993) Getting Past No: negotiating in difficult situations. Bantam Books.
• Ury, William. (1997) The Power of Positive No: how to say no and still get to yes. Random House.
I write this posting thinking back to one of the most problematical and even dysfunctional negotiations process I have ever seen played out on the public stage, and certainly where the stakes were as high as they were in this instance: negotiating what should have been the completely avoidable conflict over raising the United States debt ceiling in July and the first days of August, 2011. And I begin this posting by reminding the reader of a point I have made repeatedly and in a variety of contexts.
• Sometimes our best teachers can be found in our worst role models and examples.
This applies to learning what it means to be an effective manager and leader. It applies in the very different context of web design and more generally in developing and presenting an effective online presence. And it applies here with negotiations and in understanding and developing best practices for them.
Here, the issue is not one of which side or faction was in the right or in the wrong. This is about how negotiations faltered and faltered again, pushing everyone involved in them into untenable corners and dissolving public faith that either side was either willing or able to do better. And even when this manufactured and self-inflicted crisis was resolved in the last minute before the US government had to at least temporarily renege on its debt obligations, this had already caused serious harm to the world’s perception of the United States’ capacity to maintain its economic solvency and credibility.
Good examples are in general at least on the right track and in general they get the details of what they are doing right too. Bad examples tend to break down in specific places and ways, and shed a strong light on the Hows and Whys of that. They provide teachable moments and lessons learned opportunities for getting the points where they failed right. And more often than not our negative role model examples fall down through a failure in a crucial area where getting the details right can make all the difference. That is what happened here.
This is only a posting about a particular budget crisis insofar as that serves to highlight some very important points in effective negotiations per se. I want to focus on one of the core points that this raises and then at least briefly discuss how getting that wrong caused everything else to unravel too.
Democrats wanted to roll back the tax cuts that then President George W Bush put in place to specifically benefit the wealthiest in this country. They saw these cuts as increasing our national debt by allowing the wealthiest 1% in the country to pay less than their fair share, and they saw that as a gross violation of any sense of equality of opportunity. Republicans wanted to cut spending on programs and initiatives that they saw as government sponsored and mandated social engineering, and they adamantly opposed any tax increases as they labeled the Democratic position – as opposed to calling them a restoration of tax law balance. Democrats wanted to find a balance that included both spending cuts and revenue increases – repeal of those highest income bracket tax breaks. And both parties and most certainly the Republicans wanted to win this debate while making their other-party counterparts come across as clearly loosing. I have to add that in order to obtain a determining vote in Congress, the Republicans saw need to placate and gain support from their most radical fringe elements from the Tea Party – and many in that group saw a failure to reach agreement as a form of victory.
• When you go into a negotiation you have to understand both your own position and that of the people you will face on the other side of the table, and that from their perspectives.
• And you need to know what both you and they would see as an acceptable best alternative to negotiated agreement – what you and they would see as an acceptable alternative path forward if negotiations simply fail.
But this just sets the stage for negotiating with a hope of real success. This is about knowing the big picture from both sides of the table and the major goals and priorities. With that as a starting point,
• You need to negotiate from and towards the overall goal and not the details, and definitely not the more extraneous and even throw-away details.
If you negotiate the details and loose track of the big picture, you will loose and so will the people you negotiate with.
• You have to find a way to bring the overall goals desired by the two sides of this process into alignment and if possible agreement.
• And with that, you have to be willing to work towards a resolution that both sides can come to see as a victory.
Here, the bottom line goal for the Democrats was to keep the country from going into default, with a loss of full faith in credit and all of the consequences that would develop as a direct result. But the Republicans they were negotiating with were being driven by a faction that wanted to Democrats to loose, and loose badly, that saw a default as a very acceptable best alternative to negotiated agreement if not an actual goal, and that saw negotiations per se and compromise as anathema.
Basically this was a set up where the best possible outcome would simply be one that that left all parties involved feeling battered and abused. An August 2, 2011 default was avoided but at the terrible cost of having to go through all this again and before the end of the year, and from a position of both sides of feeling they had lost in August. This was a textbook case study of how not to negotiate.
• You cannot negotiate effectively with another side of the table if you have not reached acceptable agreement as to goals and priorities with the people on your own side of the table first.
• You have to be willing and able to cut through the thicket of details, pertinent and extraneous and everything in between to focus on core goals and priorities and the big picture.
• And you need to work toward shared, mutual victory so both sides can come to agreement on terms that both sides would be willing to live with and sustain, and not just in concluding the negotiations but in all of the ongoing follow through and enactment that those negotiations specify.
I have written a number of times about bad managers and leaders I have known and worked from and about how I have learned positive lessons from their negative examples. Here, I write of really poor negotiators and offer their negative example as a source of positive lessons learned.
I am not expecting to continue discussion of the specific failure to effectively negotiate that I cited as brief case study here, but I am sure I will be coming back to discuss negotiations per se again. And I add that this time I have decided to post on negotiations in my Social Networking and Business directory, as social networking as a developing and sharing of mutual value in building connections, usually calls for negotiations skills. That is an idea that is important to emphasize and I do so here as a final thought for this posting.