A Professional Negotiator’s Guide to Resolving Conflict

Written by Ian Wylie Monday 02 September 2019
Think you know the best way of navigating a difficult conversation? Think again. Here’s some expert advice conflict resolution techniques, from some of the world’s best negotiators
Man in a suit with a small cup of coffe

What kind of difficult conversations are you grappling with or putting off? Let’s say you’re biding your time because you need to negotiate a particular outcome. Your ability to negotiate with your bosses, stakeholders, clients and co-workers may determine whether your career flies high or falls flat. It’s a measure of your personal effectiveness, according to CMI’s Professional Standards and Competency Framework.

Even though we’ve all been negotiating since we could talk – “Just five more minutes?” or “Next round’s on me if you’ll stay for one more…” – there’s a good chance we’re still making some elementary mistakes. Here’s what negotiation experts say we should be doing.

Begin by Listening

“We assume persuasion is about talking, but actually the most persuasive strategy you can take is to listen well,” says Sheila Heen, one of the world’s foremost experts on negotiation and conflict resolution and a member of the Harvard Negotiation Project. She says that in a difficult conversation, you have to shift your thinking away from being focused on what you’re right about to try and understand the other person’s point of view (even if you know they’re wrong). In particular, practise your ability to listen for the feelings beneath what your conversation partner is saying.

Negotiate in Person, Not by Email

Email is really a series of monologues, not a true dialogue, explains Heen. When you read an email, you’re prone to have a reaction to the early text that can alter your perception of any later text, causing you to write back in a triggered and tense state. Emails also tends to escalate conflict the fastest, because it’s easy to forget there’s a real human being on the other side of the screen.

Go to the Balcony

How can you avoid an escalatory spiral where tensions spin the negotiation out of control? In his book Getting Past No, William Ury advises us to break the cycle of reaction and counter-reaction in negotiation by “going to the balcony” — that is, imagining we are stepping back from the stage to the balcony. In doing so, we can gather our thoughts, and look at the situation objectively. Creating this sense of psychological distance can give us the clarity we need to identify the motives behind unfair tactics and avoid responding in kind.

Adapt to the Other Person’s Negotiating Style

There is a prevailing view in some circles that the best way to handle difficult conversations is through a dominant and tough negotiating style. However, according to a recent study in the journal of Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, pairs in which one negotiator behaved dominantly and the other submissively (as instructed) reached the best deals. These pairs of complementary-style negotiators outperformed pairs made up of same-style negotiators, including two dominant negotiators. Notably, those with the more submissive style didn’t sacrifice their own needs for those of their counterparts. Rather, they met their own needs by subtly determining, through questioning, how they could help both sides meet their goals. Their more submissive style brought the parties together by helping their more dominant counterparts feel respected, competent, and understood.

Create a Partnership

Both sides in a difficult conversation (usually) have a vested interest in finding a solution. Explore those possible solutions together. Ask your opponent/partner what they think might work. Whatever they say, find something you like and build on it. If the conversation becomes adversarial, go back to exploring possible solutions. Asking for the other’s point of view usually creates safety and encourages them to engage.

If you’ve been successful in listening and adapting your style, building sustainable solutions will be easier. The art of conversation is like any art — so with continued practice you will acquire skill and expertise.

See how you would apply these negotiation tactics to the most difficult conversations these people have ever had.