January 12, 2020

Top 5 Conflict Resolution Strategies in Negotiation

Happy Holidays to you and yours! Chances are very good that you had to negotiate with at least a few people to figure out what your holiday plans would be this holiday season, and chances are good that it didn’t all go perfectly smoothly. If you are all still on speaking terms, that’s probably because you utilized some of your best conflict resolution tools...

Happy Holidays to you and yours!


Chances are very good that you had to negotiate with at least a few people to figure out what your holiday plans would be this holiday season, and chances are good that it didn’t all go perfectly smoothly. If you are all still on speaking terms, that’s probably because you utilized some of your best conflict resolution tools.


Every great negotiator must know how to resolve conflict because almost every negotiation in business, as in life, is just one stage in a longer-term relationship. Not only can great conflict resolution skills help you to avoid weakening a good relationship, they can transform a pretty good partnership into a robust and productive one by building a common foundation.


Effective Negotiating® requires a roadmap of where negotiations go wrong and a good set of tools for resolving conflicts when they come up. Here are 5 tools you should bring to the table.


1. Active Listening at the Negotiating Table


Sometimes a good negotiation starts to go sour. There could be any number of reasons for this. Perhaps you’ve asked for a concession that cuts deep or threatens to make the other side look bad to their organization. Or it could be that the other side is throwing up obstacles as a tactic. Either way, you are likely negotiating with somebody -- or a team -- that is getting serious pressure from within their organization. This is the time to understand how to listen carefully for where there might be some space for bringing in other variables like changes to the timeline for delivery, concessions that cost you little but offer great value, or other “hidden satisfiers” that will make the organization happy and smooth the way for consensus at the table.


Active listening is vital in other scenarios, too. What if you’re dealing with an irate customer with a reasonable grievance? Maybe a delivery came so late that this significantly ate into profit, for example. You can’t change the past, an apology doesn’t do much, and you don’t have much to give away as an after-the-fact concession to try to smooth things over. Are you at an impasse?


Here again, don’t let the tension on the surface keep you from looking for “hidden satisfiers.” Once both sides can agree that very little can be done about what has already gone wrong, listen for clues to understand what is causing the most grief. For example, is it the loss in profits or is it more the fact that a late delivery next time would be a much bigger disaster and you are talking to somebody who is going to seriously take the heat from their organization if your shipment is late again? Sometimes this is a good time to do a little research into the history of your business relationship and then look at what may be changing in their organization -- or in what you have to supply -- that could bring unexpected value to the table.


Listening for what isn’t quite being said introduces very useful information to act on because there’s something you can do about next time to rebuild trust and resilience in your relationship and maybe even give your angry customer a sense of great satisfaction. It may well be that this time, that small concession on your part that adds real value for the customer could be twice as meaningful, building great satisfaction all around and also confirming that you are the best supplier for their needs.


The Lesson: The best negotiators use active listening not only to resolve conflict but also to gain more insight into how to produce satisfaction and maximize value.


2. Patience


As with active listening, any good self-help book is going to tell us to develop our capacity for patience. Also like active listening, exercising patience does not mean conceding to the needs of the other side. It’s simply a tool for coming to a better understanding of the needs of both sides so that a conflict can be resolved and, ideally, better options can be brought forward.


In negotiation, patience doesn’t just mean tolerating difficulties that come up from, for example, a seller you can never seem to reach while a deadline looms or a buyer who keeps dragging their feet to stall for more concessions. In fact, patience is vital even in the most straightforward negotiations. In fact, sometimes the most routine negotiations are where we lose the most ground because we are probably going on autopilot instead of using our sophisticated Effective Negotiating® skills. A lot of money gets left on the table when we aren’t really paying attention. Patience is the art of spending an extra few minutes looking carefully at what is going on, especially but not only when things are going wrong.


In a crisis, patience not only helps to keep things from getting more difficult, it also gives you the upper hand when you can see things clearly. That doesn’t mean you’ll want to exploit that advantage so much that you undermine your working relationships, however. Let’s say you are dissolving a long-term business partnership with a seller whose product has not been up to your quality standards and you are going with their main competitor now. This is bound to create tensions as you continue working together to get through the last few product deliveries before the end of the contract.


On the one hand, you don’t seem to need much from them anymore since you have a contract with a better seller going into effect and you’re very happy about this. On the other hand, this seller has much less to lose in making you a low priority, and this could cause big problems with your supply line, let’s say. How can you keep things moving smoothly?


Here is where patience brings its biggest advantage. If your bitter old seller is undermining your supply line, once you identify the risk to your profit, it’s clear that adding more fuel to the fire isn’t going to help you at all. You are, in fact, back at the negotiating table but in a more underhanded sense. Pay attention to where things are going wrong -- in this case, maybe it’s late or incomplete shipments with vague excuses. If it’s a question of timeline or supply, then patiently look at this as another occasion for some negotiation and avoid giving big concessions in a desperate attempt to get the goods you need. Look for ways to adjust the timeline and supply that could relieve some pressure on their end while finding some leverage on your end, for example their reputation amongst fellow buyers.


The Lesson: Bringing patience to the table means keeping a cool head and finding solutions that avoid losing out with pressured concessions when conflicts arise.


3. Don’t Let Conflict Avoidance Get You Off Track


It’s a classic holiday movie plotline: the main characters have been avoiding facing their real feelings for each other until some major travel mishap leaves them in the middle of nowhere for the holidays, where they finally deal with their feelings and the real romance of the movie begins. This is great for Hollywood but a disaster for business! That’s because these fictional characters have unexpressed feelings of passion. Around the negotiating table, it’s underlying feelings of mistrust or suspicion that can take a negotiation off the rails.


There are always signs ahead of time that a conflict is emerging, even if it’s kept at a low level. If you’re looking carefully, you can see indications that a stalemate is on the horizon. Sometimes you or the other side might want to strategically instigate an impasse, and it’s important to know both how to utilize this tactic and how to defend against it. But you also want to have the tools to see when this is not a tactic but rather a sign that something is starting to go wrong.


Once you’ve learned how to spot impasse tactics, you are in a better position to see when an obstacle is part of a strategy and when it is a real problem that needs a very different kind of solution. Instead of avoiding conflict and putting yourself on a sure track to a serious breakdown of negotiations, a strong negotiator has a box of impasse-breaking tools like the use of new information and changing the structures of negotiation. Used well, these tools can not only avoid a crisis but actually lead to a stronger Both-Win® outcome and a more resilient long-term negotiating relationship.


The Lesson: A great negotiator knows to address conflict in order to avoid an impasse and can use tools to improve outcomes and strengthen relationships over time.


4. Understand Which Negotiation Mode You Are In


Everybody knows a couple that left for the holidays full of anticipation and came back ready to call in a lawyer, or the couple that went into couples therapy looking for a way forward and quickly found themselves looking for a way out. In both cases, the goals for negotiation changed the moment a personal relationship became a legal relationship, and woe betide the spouse or partner who didn’t see this coming!


For business relationships, too, before you can figure out your conflict resolution technique, you need to know what kind of conflict you’re dealing with. When a conflict arises, the first step is to take a step back to think about what mode of negotiation we are in. Effective Negotiating® provides a framework for understanding the different modes of negotiation because if we approach an organizational negotiation in a personal negotiating mode, or if we focus on cooperative tactics in a very competitive negotiation, we lose our strategic advantage and weaken our position for the future.


The Lesson: Always be aware of which negotiation mode you are in or risk losing ground now and in the future.


5. When a Molehill Becomes a Mountain


Everybody remembers the first time a small problem somehow became Mount Vesuvius. For example, we might assume that we have finalized a deal only to find that the goalposts keep moving. Something small like this can quickly become a big deal.


Shifting goalposts are usually a sign that the negotiating parties don’t have a set understanding of the difference between a provisional understanding and a finalized agreement. If this is the case, then the problem is a lack of communication and there is a real danger that the negotiation could be knocked off-track.


At other times, one side might be moving the goalposts as a tactic to intentionally force the other side onto its back foot and to gain some strategic ground. If you find yourself on the other end of this tactic, then knowing how to counter it is key to regaining a strong standing. In this case, the party setting the terms is going to benefit from creating some confusion and the negotiation is really only out of control for one side.


The shifting goalposts example demonstrates that when a molehill becomes a mountain -- when something goes wrong in a negotiation and conflicts arise that create a bigger problem -- a good negotiator needs to understand whether the conflict comes from unintentional miscommunication or strategic tactics to gain advantage. Effective Negotiating® means understanding the stakes of losing control and knowing how to redirect the process to your advantage.


Sometimes when a mountain becomes a molehill this is a disaster and good conflict management skills are urgently needed. On the other hand, if it’s a managed crisis under our own control, then we also manage how the problem is resolved and can gain a clear advantage this way. A good negotiator will use tactics to perhaps challenge the power of legitimacy or find new grounds for again shifting the timeline and terms for concluding the negotiation to regain a strong negotiating position.


The Lesson: Master the art of managing conflict by understanding when it might provide strategic advantage, when it might undermine your control and when it might.

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