Nurturing good relationships early inhibits the personalizing of differences later. The stronger the relationship between the parties, the easier it will be to avoid demonizing or demeaning the other as negotiations heat up. An experience I had with a close associate shows how important strong bonds can be in softening difficult disagreement.

Frank and I have worked side by side for a decade. We write and develop training programs for business executives. We not only get along well at work, but also spend time with each other’s family. A year ago, there was a difficult difference of opinion between us.

We were assigned to work on a major customized training project with good marketing potential. Three disagreements soon surfaced: the scope of the training program, how long it would take to complete and the estimated total cost including development and production. He believed that writing an extended analysis and detailed script related to the subject matter was essential. I thought a rough script and modest workbook would be sufficient. We recognized that these critical decisions had to be made early on with so large and costly a project and so tight a timeline.

Negotiations on course of action began almost immediately and continued sporadically over a four-week period. I was surprised at how contentious and uncomfortable it was to disagree to sharply with someone I had so enjoyed working with in the past. My guess is that he felt much the same.

What helped most during these difficult sessions was that neither of us uttered a word of disparagement or criticism at the other.

Past errors on other projects over the years, some by him and others by me, were not brought up. The fact that we had worked together collaboratively for so long facilitated an amicable and sound agreement on course of action. It helped us explore conflicting ideas and handle opposing viewpoints in a good-natured way. We gave each other the benefit of the doubt. Neither had to be perfect in proving our claims. Words misspoken were overlooked. Contingencies were freely discussed and jointly evaluated as to their probability of taking place. Rough notes of these discussions were taken.

An agreement was reached and sketched out for both to review. The important thing was the spirit of the deal, not the exact words. We both recognized that unknown things would be learned later and renegotiations necessary. Later, when things went wrong, as they usually do from time to time on so large a project, we renegotiated based on reality and our notes from earlier talks.

Today, I can say the project worked out well. All things considered, the outcome was pretty good for such a relatively ill-defined but important company undertaking. Above all, on a personal level, we remember the experience as creative and interesting. I do not believe it could have been done if our relationship were not so sound.

I share this example with you as a way of demonstrating how personal relationships can assist difficult negotiations.

Lay a foundation for a solid personal relationship, and keep that relationship as a main priority within negotiations. You’ll find that this makes the process of complex and difficult negotiations proceed more effectively.

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