Negotiation: Avoiding the Vale of Suck Starts with You

Ed. Note: This post also serves as my wrap up of all things OSCON 2011. I didn’t give a talk, I had a great time in the OSL Booth, saw lots of awesome people, as usual. Went to Trek in the Park. Twice. You can read all about that stuff on the OSL News Blog. Well, not the Trek in the Park stuff.

After enjoying the first day of the Community Leadership Summit, I was fortunate enough to be invited to a Negotiation Training Workshop organized by Selena Deckelmann and facilitated by David Eaves. We had about fifteen women in attendance, from a variety of open source projects and non-profit organizations. The workshop lasted about eight hours and, sadly, there’s no way I am going to do it justice in this post. The day was incredibly useful for me and I encourage everyone who has the opportunity to go through this training with David to do so. You’ll never look at communication the same way again.

Since I can’t summarize all that I’d like, I’ll highlight one aspect of the workshop. Very early on in his presentation to us, David posted a diagram that looks a lot like this one (only much better drawn):


The point of this diagram is to illustrate the types of conversations we have with people. For example, you may really not like someone and know that they’re highly against cute kittens, which you adore. Asking that person to donate to the awesome kitten fund would be a conversation falling squarely into the lower left quadrant.

We talked through this diagram and much of what was said is the best kind of common sense. When you are friends with someone, but know they have different objectives in a situation than you do, you’re in the lower right quadrant, etc. And, of course, when you enjoy a good relationship with someone and you both want the same general outcome, the conversation is bound to go well and you’re operating in the upper right quadrant.

Now, here’s the interesting bit: David pointed out that while each type of conversation is a negotiation of one sort or another, we never think of those conversations in the upper right quadrant as negotiations. We’re speaking with people that think well of us and that we think well of and, given that alignment, chances are we are fairly like-minded and that each party would like to see the other happy. We walk away from these conversations with both sides “getting what they want,” but we mentally classify these as conversations instead of negotiations because these conversations are generally easy.

Note: Diagram Adaptation My Own

On the other hand, relationships in the other quadrants we immediately approach as negotiations. We assume, based on generally useful data (having a poor relationship with the other party, knowing each wants different things, or both), that talking to this person is always and already going to be a walk through the vale of suck. We approach the discussion having pre-gamed how it’s going to go poorly. We make assumptions about how to counter the other party’s objections and how to make sure that we get what we want. We spend the majority of our energy trying to decide how we are going to outfox, out-persuade or even apply political force to the other party to get them to comply with our desired outcome.

Stop. Halt. Hold the phone. First of all, let’s notice just how much those thoughts are a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you assume it’s going to suck, it probably will. Your body language shows that you think you’re wandering through the vale of suck. It will be reflected in your diction. These things will be apparent, more or less obviously, to the person with whom you are negotiating. All these things make it harder to accomplish our goals.

So how do you make these sorts of situations better?

  1. Assume each negotiation in the heretofore named “Vale of Suck” quadrants is an opportunity to strengthen your relationship, better align your interests, or both.
  2. Do not proceed into those conversations with assumptions about the other party’s interests. Ask them what they’d like to get out of a given situation.
  3. Be candid about your own interests in a given situation. Displaying trust strengthens relationships.
  4. Spend little to no time worrying about how your candor may mean that you give away information that can be used against you. Remember, you always have the option to let the other party know that you feel they are acting in this way, and that such behavior will color your perception of future negotiations. Chances are probably good that you won’t need to make such a statement.

Remember, the only person you have control over in any negotiation is you, so walk in with an open mind and assume that there will be an effective exploration of interests. You may not reach consensus or an agreement. You may not get what you want. But you’ll certainly be much better prepared to achieve your goals.

I’d like to express my sincerest thanks to David for sharing his knowledge with us and making me see negotiation and communication processes in a completely different way. Thanks to Selena for organizing the workshop and bringing us all together. Thanks to my fellow attendees for the opportunity to learn from them and get to know them, many of them for the first time. Lastly, thanks to the sponsors who made the workshop possible: Google, Mozilla, O’Reilly, Technocation, and Wikimedia.

Now go read Dave’s blog.

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4 Responses to Negotiation: Avoiding the Vale of Suck Starts with You

  1. Kai Blin says:

    Hey LH, you’ve got a bug in your first illustration. The lower right quadrant probably should be “Interests poorly aligned, relationship excellent” or somesuch. Other than that, I fully agree. It all seems like common sense, but explicitly thinking about it makes it easier. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Eeep, thanks Kai. Diagram fixed.

    It does all seem like common sense, but the most interesting aspect of this workshop for me was going through a negotiation exercise. We spent all morning talking about the nuances of negotiation and then immediately spent much of our time focusing on the monetary aspects of our negotiation exercise instead of all the other details we could have. We made a lot of assumptions about motivations. We didn’t share as openly as we could have.

    And that’s in a practice exercise after a morning of good teaching. :)

    • Kai Blin says:

      I guess this is one of the things where the theory is much easier than the practice. Especially because going into a “this is going to suck” mentality comes so easy and is a well trained reflex already. Animals of habit, that’s what we are. :)

  3. Pingback: DevConf.cz event, day 1 part 1. » The Grand Fallacy

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