Jeff Weiss is an adjunct professor of Business Administration at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business and a partner at Vantage Partners, LLC.
It's not about compromise. In fact, framing it that way creates the very problem we see in business every day.
Having spent the past 25 years working with corporations and governments on complex negotiations, I have seen the good, the bad, and the terrible. My colleagues and I work daily with leading companies around the globe that are negotiating mergers and acquisitions transactions, outsourcing deals, complex sales agreements, and huge services contracts. On top of this, and as part of every external negotiation in which these companies engage, they also undertake internal negotiations among functions, business units, and regions. Further, we have had the pleasure of working with myriad government leaders around the globe over many years, and I have the honor of working with all levels of the U.S. Army on a regular basis. Rarely a day goes by when someone does not suggest in every one of these contexts that if people would just compromise, everyone would be better off.
Pundits suggest negotiations in Washington would benefit from compromise. Bankers suggest that stuck mergers and acquisitions talks would benefit from it. Analysts suggest the same for companies whose sales are down or supply chains are in trouble. Advisers to presidents suggest the same when it comes to foreign policy.
Worse yet, when I recently shared my disdain for the word, an academic colleague told me, "How can you complain about this? You're the guys who wrote the book on win-win negotiating." (My partner Bruce Patton, former partner Roger Fisher, and Bill Ury co-authored Getting to Yes, which just celebrated its 30th anniversary). And then I began to get it. "Win-win" must mean you get something, I get something, and therefore we need a process of compromise. How else would everyone get a win? Further, negotiation is really just a haggle. It is bargaining. Sooner or later someone needs to compromise, or no solution can be reached.
But maybe there is another approach. In fact, it might be the very one crisply laid out in Getting to Yes, which I have come to conclude is widely misunderstood: Get creative!
Abandon developing a solution and gathering supporting data before sitting down to negotiate. Imagine how different the budget negotiations might be if all key parties came to the table able to clearly articulate their interests—in other words, their aims, objectives, fears, and concerns, not their answer. Based on these interests, imagine if the parties then put aside commitments, or even the evaluation of ideas, and simply invented possible solutions that might meet similar, complementary, and even diverging interests. And, if the actual decision-makers were incapable of doing this, then perhaps they could invite in, if even just temporarily, a group of experts who have no ability to vote, decide, or commit.
It is often noted that one of the most productive periods over the many years of arms control negotiations was when U.S. and Soviet officials left the table and invited scientists—termed "wizards"—to spend time simply brainstorming possible solutions. With no ability to commit their countries to anything, they were free to develop (and, as it turned out, were quite successful in developing) a series of breakthrough ideas in a very short period of time. Similarly, in the work my colleagues do at Mercy Corps Conflict Management Group, "facilitated joint brainstorming sessions" have led previously entrenched parties to come up with new workable solutions in governmental conflicts around the world.
Negotiation is not about compromise, and business and governmental leaders should stop treating it that way. Changing one's mindset from "I know I am right, and now I just need to prove to you that you are wrong" is the next step in making this transition. The most effective, hard-driving negotiators with whom I have worked walk into negotiations with an assumption that they have something to learn from their counterpart. They know from experience that being open to persuasion makes them more persuasive (think of the last person with whom you negotiated who was completely un-open to persuasion, and ask yourself how likely it was that they would persuade you of anything). Effective negotiators also know that being open to learning from their counterpart leads to uncovering new ideas that quite often may meet their interests even better (be more valuable to them) than their original solution, and certainly meets them better than a compromise solution.
The third step is moving away from telling one's counterpart what they should do, and replacing it with a joint conversation about what you both ought to do. Instead of splitting the difference (how many times a week do we see this tack taken or suggested in the board room, on the Hill, or on Wall Street?), effective negotiators make skillful use of standards, criteria, past practice, and fair process. Determining how much something is worth, for example, can be tackled not simply by choosing a mid-point between offers and counteroffers, but through a careful assessment of how analogous things have been valued and paid for in the past. Using standards not only leads to more defensible solutions, but also to more clever ideas. More often than not, in the midst of exploring standards, one or both parties will discover or invent a new way to solve part of the problem.
Once one or more creative solutions have been developed, the fourth step is engaging constituents in a new way. Rather than asking them for agreement, the effective negotiator asks for their criticism. "What might be wrong with this?" is one of the most powerful questions a negotiator can ask. Most people are happy to criticize just about anything, and in their criticism come their interests—not the standard reply of, "I love it; just add 10 percent more," but the criticism of, "I am not sure we have the resources to do that, can monitor that, or if that will really fix the skills shortage we have." The negotiator cannot do much with the former, except engage in a haggle among constituents, some who want a 10 percent increase, others who want a 15 percent one, and others who want something else altogether. The latter, however, gives the negotiator a set of interests to take into account—a need for more or better resources, a more effective or efficient way to monitor (or perhaps a solution that meets the underlying need for monitoring), and a way to improve or increase available skills. Other constituents may echo these, and add various others. Instead of lining up the constituents to pledge their support and help do battle, the constituents become engaged in the process because after all, to criticize, they are forced to do more than listen to a sound bite or peruse a summary. They need to think very specifically about the details of the draft solution and what their interests really are, and, if one cleverly sets up the process this way, they are exposed to other people's criticism—interests which might be the same as, complementary to, or even conflicting with their own. Then the negotiator has something to bring back to the table which will engage their counterpart's creative thinking.
Lastly, to move from compromise to creativity, effective negotiators need to know how to "change the game." They will be sure to face those who simply want to haggle and demand a compromise. The best negotiators will turn that around. They will ask, "Why do you want that?" and "How else might we possibly resolve this" and "By what standard(s) would we know a good answer?" They will represent their own interests very well, have a number of possible solutions prepared to try out in the negotiation, and be well equipped with standards that ensure they get a very good deal. Even more so, they will listen, test, inquire, dig, and engage the other party in developing new solutions. In the end, at least in my 25 years of observation and experience, these negotiators will almost always achieve a true "win-win." Both parties will not just take away something, but each will have a solution that meets their core interests. This solution may look nothing like what either party envisioned at the beginning of the negotiation. But, that's not because they got less; it's because they actually got more.