Business owners may not be able to cut the Gordian knot that has the federal government tied up, but they can learn from the example being set by Washington hardliners about how to negotiate with clients, vendors, landlords or others who don’t seem ready to compromise. Two negotiation experts and a business veteran of many real-world negotiations offer these suggestions:
Start By Making Sure You Understand
For Ed Jerdonek, CEO and principal of Louisville-based architecture and design firm Luckett & Farley, the appearance of a seemingly unbreakable logjam in a business negotiation means it’s time to take extra care to grasp the other side’s position. While some people are truly unwilling to compromise, usually a way exists for each party to get enough of what they're after to break the gridlock, Jerdonek says.
“We find we have to figure out a way to offer our opponent some means to let them soften their position a little bit,” he says. “Once we understand a little more of the reasoning behind their positions, we’re often able to offer them concessions that we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to identify.”
Intransigence typically becomes a problem for Jerdonek when clients want the firm to do more work than was agreed upon and paid for. “A lot of times they say we don’t have any money and if you value your relationship you’ll find a way of helping us,” he says. “That’s code. It means do this for free."
Luckett & Farley traces its roots to the Civil War, and hasn’t survived that long by working for free. But when clients are governmental entities with nearly immovable budget constraints, as is often the case, it may be very difficult for them to pay more even if they want to.
One government client budgeted substantially less than a project’s actual cost and, when this was discovered after design work was underway, wanted Jerdonek to cover the shortfall. He wouldn’t. The client pled poverty. But after talking it through, he found he could address part of their needs by doing the extra work for less than normal rates. After that, the client found funds to divert from another budget. The end result amounted a roughly 50-50 sharing of the cost.
“Maybe it was 60-40, but at the end of the day it all worked out okay,” Jerdonek says. “And we were able to maintain and perhaps reinforce a good client relationship.” His advice: If you face a seemingly intransigent opponent, try to grasp what they are really after. Then find a way to offer them at least some of it.
Consider Walking Away, At Least Temporarily
In Washington, of course, negotiations sometimes only seem to take place through public statements designed to cater to political constituencies. In some of these situations, says Alex Hiam, an Amherst, Massachusetts-based consultant and co-author of Mastering Business Negotiation, you may be facing an outright power play, which is not a negotiation at all. It’s important to recognize that. “If you find yourself dealing with someone who is determined to battle, not to negotiate, then don't make the mistake of offering concessions in the hope of reciprocation,” Hiam says.
You may be able break the impasse by calling out the other side, naming the inappropriate tactics being employed, and asking them to stop. “Also, do not continue with negotiations—which usually involve concessions—until they stop behaving poorly,” Hiam suggests. “In other words, refuse to play until they start following the rules.
“If calling them on it doesn't correct the problem, try to reach out to someone else,” Hiam adds. Unlike Washington politicians limited by a two-party system, businesses usually can find an option to any given customer, vendor or other negotiation adversary. And someone else may be easier to deal with.
Another technique, which is on routine display in Washington, is to try to frame the argument in language and concepts that support your case and appeal to your supporters. Even if it’s really a power play, the side that musters more support in this case is likely to win, and portraying yourself as the good guy can put you on top. “It's destructive,” Hiam says. “But sometimes you get stuck in that position, and when you do, you better recognize it and respond accordingly or it will be a lot more destructive for you than for them.” The main thing, he stresses, is to recognize that some jammed-up situations call for very different tactics from normal negotiations, perhaps including refusing to negotiate at all.
Be Open To Third-Party Mediation
Placing a trusted, neutral person between warring parties can ease tensions, reduce posturing and improve communication, often leading to a resolution. Skilled mediators have specific techniques for increasing agreement between sides that can’t seem to agree on anything and slowly urging them toward consensus.
A third party could conceivably help resolve current and future standoffs between the White House and Congress, says Michael Wheeler, a Harvard Business School professor and author of the just-published The Art of Negotiation. For instance, he says an individual with a great deal of standing, such as a former U.S. president, could step in and volunteer to act as an intermediary. This is what happened when Russian President Vladimir Putin involved himself as the United States seemed about to go to war in Syria, he notes.
Something like that may well be happening behind the scenes any time there's a serious deadlock in Washington, Wheeler suggests. “There are a lot of people who have clout and a positive reputation,” he says. “I can’t believe they’re just bystanders to this.”
As these varying opinions suggest, negotiation is an art. And it’s an evolving one. In Wheeler’s new book, he suggests the need for an alternative to the two main approaches to negotiation, which the soft approach of seeking a win-win and the hard approach of finding ways to impose one’s will on the other side. Rather than deciding in advance how to handle things, negotiators need to be more flexible.
“In a nutshell, the message is you can’t script negotiation,” Wheeler says. “Whoever is on the other side is likely to be as willful and unpredictable as you are. You have to be able to improvise strategically and tactically. That applies across the board.”
Wheeler’s ideal negotiators are prepared to make quick but effective evaluations and reach decisions in situations they haven’t foreseen. That includes those like the ones recurring regularly in Washington where both sides seem unable to agree because the outcomes aren’t what they want, although nobody wants the outcome of a failure to agree. “In some circumstances,” Wheeler says, “indecision might be worse than a mediocre decision.”
Read more articles on negotiating.
Photo: Getty Images