By Maria Collar
Chief Consultant, Serendipity Consulting Service

I once knew a supervisor whose passion drove me absolutely bananas. But who doesn’t have one of those? However, this was no ordinary supervisor- he was also one of my union presidents. As a union president, Mr. Passion was undeniably a fearless, bold and intense leader with powerful influence over the entire bargaining unit. Without doubt, he was a talkative, animate, and active supervisor whose commitment to the organization showed in everything he set out to accomplish.

In one particular incident, which caused more gray hair than I care to count, his passion butted heads with the mother-load of all regulations, the ADAAA. As it turned out, one of his employees was out on FMLA and, claiming immunity to the gods of HIPAA, demanded more details than I was willing to compromise. How did the story with Mr. Passion end up? Well, the whole thing finished, from CEO to the Department’s Director, all tangled up in red tape.

Very often we entrench ourselves in the various regulations only to forget the intrinsic need of the human on the other side of the table. You are right. I am wrong. Who really cares? Sometimes conflict is not as simple as someone being right or wrong. Sometimes neither person is necessarily wrong. The other person simply has a different point of view or way of approaching things. Indeed, most often the biggest problem does not come from the conflict itself. No wonder we usually find ourselves pointing fingers at the person across the table instead of the underlying issue.

Do not be naïve in the notion that disagreement will not take place or that you are in a place where conflict just does not happen anymore. Conflict does not offer a hall pass on disagreement. It is an inevitable part of life. As creatures of emotion, we humans often become entangled in the irrationality of different perspectives. If convictions are kept under check, leaders do not remain stuck in the proverbial swap of deadlock negotiations with both sides pointing fingers, pushing, demanding, and disagreeing on narrow positions.

These days so much hinges upon a side “winning” that we frequently become consumed by narrow positions, consequently ignoring the broader implications from the actual disagreement. We approach the negotiating table adamantly encapsulating the “truth” with focused conviction, demanding loudly that it is our way or the highway, and then we are surprised when both sides suffer great loses. With stakes higher than ever, it is almost impossible not to wonder if there is a better way to negotiate than in the loud mode. Particularly in times of economic uncertainty, leaders must be willing to learn new negotiating strategies that offer innovative solutions and become educated on mutual bargaining.

The greatest misunderstanding about negotiations is that it is always adversarial in nature. It is indeed a problem solving process in which each party looks across the table and regards its counterparts as advocates. The traditional approach of negotiating is distributive bargaining which involves the tactic of convincing the opposite party that it will be worse not to agree to the proposal. The strategy here is to add pressure in order to convince the opposite that the cost of agreeing is less than the cost of disagreeing. This type of positional negotiation is basically adversarial. The negotiators see the process as “win-lose,” in which any gains by the opponent are losses to their team.

A recent strategic, emerging from “win-lose” agreement, is to identify one particularly vulnerability to target for hard negotiation around key issues. When neither side yields on the issue, a strike ensues and persists until some agreement is reached or one side collapses under the cost of the strike. Some of the back and forth in today’s negotiations present a classic example of this type of negotiation tactic.

Fortunately, the new era of strategic negotiations has brought forth a system of integrative bargaining. Strategic negotiation serves more as a collaborative process through which groups move towards achieving common goals. Fisher and Ury explain this collaborative strategy in their iconic book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In. This integrative method of negotiating, called principled negotiating, was first developed by the Harvard Negotiation project. Principled negotiating is an approach based on merits instead of positions and aims at establishing a system based on mutual gains or “win-win” agreements. Overall, this approach aims at finding a solution that is acceptable for both parties and leaves both parties feeling as if they have won.

How would you establish a system of “win-win” agreements?

• Focus on merits not positions. Arguing over positions is ineffective, unproductive, and endangers the ongoing relationship with the other party. In a nutshell, the more attention is paid to positions, the less attention is devoted to meeting the underlying concerns.

• Prepare and develop alternative plans. Make concessions that cultivate trust and trustworthiness. It is more effective to appeal by elevating the underlying concern over the issue.

• Mind your table manners. Keep convictions largely at bay by being in command of behaviors and emotional responses to the other side. Some negotiators may try to use pressure tactics to destabilize the agreement. It is more effective to exercise patience, maturity and experience by refraining from responding without objectivity.

• Provide different contingencies before problems arise. Establish monthly liaison meetings in which issues are brought to the table before they turn into grievances.

By creating a system of “win-win” agreements leaders give way to the new integrative bargaining approach of mutual problem-solving process. In an attempt to resolve disputes in a collaborative manner, “win-win” agreements facilitate long-term relationship building, cultivate trust and trustworthiness between parties, and result in contractual agreements that better serve both parties. Through the process of strategic decision making a consensus decision making is developed by developing mutual trust, positive relationships, and shared objectives. This type of bargaining requires a different mindset and a variety of structures, including labor-management committees, and training programs for alternative dispute resolution. Even though implementation might be time consuming, the innovative results often improve profitability and reduce liability.