Many workplace agreements abort within days. After people spend long and difficult hours discussing issues such as budgets, schedules, costs to complete or personal matters they finally reach agreement. Both sides are pleased to have the talks behind them. All that remains is for each to do as agreed; at least that is what they hope will happen.
The trouble is that in most internal negotiations, it is likely that both sides will walk away from the table with different pictures in their head of what was agreed to. The reason is that it is virtually impossible, except in the simplest negotiations, to remember all that was said in the course of give and take. Some parts of the discussion occurred early in the talks, other later, and still others at the last moment. Some points or concessions when made were tentative, others in jest, some firm. Task and non-task talk were mixed. In such a disparate flow of communication and information, it’s not surprising that even important matters may be difficult to recall or be misinterpreted.
For this reason, it is essential to recapitulate the agreement and its details at closure. To do so accurately, good notes taken during the talks are called for. In external buy-sell or contract negotiations between companies, a written memorandum of agreement by both sides is common. A formal contract always follows. Even with that, serious misunderstandings still take place.
Unfortunately, a written memorandum of agreement is rare for most internal workplace negotiations. Formal summaries of agreement are not documented and signed unless stipulated by company policy, government regulation or unhappy past experience involving civil rights disputes or lawsuits. Is it any wonder that internal negotiations are fraught with post-negotiation arguments?
All of us have been involved in “You-said-I said” disputes. The way to reduce these arguments is to summarize in writing exactly what both sides agreed to as talks end, not later. If a written agreement seems too awkward at that time, then repeated verbal summarization is useful. Saying something like, “This is my interpretation of what we have agreed on. Do you agree?” Words like, “Is there something you would prefer to add or change?” helps. Going over every point in detail takes time but reduces aggravation later.
Better yet is what one good manager I know does regularly. He ends every meeting or negotiation, be it with superiors, peers or subordinates, by not only reiterating what was settled but also doing one more thing. He sends all parties at the meeting an e-mail representing his summary of the outcome and solicits their response. Everyone he deals with has grown accustomed to his way of documenting agreements and filing them for easy recall later. “You said-I said” arguments with him are rare. His e-mail summaries carry the “power of legitimacy” and limit the range of disagreement.