Issue 4.12 | November 2014

In this Article: how to transform a competitive negotiation into a creative collaboration. Part 2 of a two-article series on negotiation that results in innovation. Part 1 is here.

by Jonathan Wilson

Percy, our client, carried a gun. Not a purse-sized handgun as one might see on law-abiding citizens in parts of the United States, but an Uzi submachine gun, with a firing rate of 600 rounds a minute and an effective range of 200 metres (600 feet).

The youthful Percy was a member of the African National Congress party and a key stakeholder in secret negotiations facilitated by our African Enterprise team in a bid to bring peace to a violence-wracked corner of South Africa. He carried a gun because he was afraid. Already, colleagues had died in assassinations ordered by his political opponents. It needs to be said that some of his political opponents suffered an identical fate, although it is doubtful that Percy played any part in that.

The Trouble with Negotiation

Negotiation is what we do to secure something we need from people who are not standing there waiting to give it to us. Thus it is often the case that, any time we enter a negotiation, we view it as a contest of wills, where the one who brings the most coercive power to the table wins. Like Percy, moreover, most of us assume that the power balance is set by default against us. So, in some way or other, whether it is with competitors, suppliers, partners, colleagues or just our boss, we tend to come to negotiations with a gun, at least a metaphorical one. Just in case.

A gun has one function: to administer harm. When you bring a gun to the negotiation table, even reluctantly, you bring a mindset that negotiation is a power struggle, and that mindset sets you up for a competitive, even combative, negotiation. It’s a proven fact, however, that the most powerful negotiated solutions are built on the combined, not competing, insights, resources and skills of the participants. The best solutions come by way of co-creation.

Many times, however, we find ourselves negotiating with a party who is, at best, an indifferent stranger and, at worst, an enemy. It is hardly easy to see them as a potential co-creator. The gap between indifference (or animosity) and friendship seems too big to bridge. Effective negotiation can, however, create exactly such a bridge.

Four Stages of Negotiation

The bridge of negotiation has four stages to it: safety, transparency, insight, and, finally, co-creation. How these stages build towards a powerful solution is best explained in reverse.

  1. Co-Creation

To co-create is to sit at the same side of the table and work together to build a solution. To do so, stakeholders identify a shared vision about what to achieve, a shared process to achieve it, and what each will contribute to enable that process. Crucially, they differentiate between shared vision and return-on-investment: shared vision expresses what they achieve together; but each has their own unique return-on-investment as a result of their contribution. In so doing, they build their collaboration on their differences, not in spite of them.

  1. Insight

Co-creation is impossible without a tremendous amount of mutual insight between negotiating parties. There can be no intelligent or comprehensive solution unless each stakeholder understands where the other stakeholders are coming from. That requires knowing, in broad terms, their history, their context and their culture: what do their past experiences, present circumstances, cherished values and habits tell us about their desires, their needs and their fears? These insights form the fuel of co-creation.

  1. Transparency

Without transparency, insight is unattainable. On the other hand, transparency is likely to disappear if we bluntly ask the other party to list their desires, needs and fears. Transparency begins by giving it. More particularly, it is gained by sharing one’s own story, and in turn asking someone to tell their story.

The result of such sharing is not only insight, but empathy. I once overheard a South African politician express to his colleagues an obvious sympathy for one of their opponents after she shared her story, including the terrible loss of her home after it was burned down by this politician’s supporters. They heard her anger and grief, but they also heard her longing for a different, peaceful and prosperous, future.

  1. Safety

However, nobody shares their story unless they feel safe. Safety is created when we visibly work to reduce the risks to which others believe they are exposed by entering negotiations. This might include a guarantee of confidentiality, or meeting in a neutral space, or using a neutral facilitator. It is created when all perceive that the negotiating ground is level and that the negotiation process is fair. Consideration and courtesy introduces small cracks into the wall of indifference or animosity, and through these cracks trust is able to seep. Sometimes, surprisingly quickly, it brings down the entire wall.

My Way or the Highway … or The Path to Innovation

I will not describe Percy’s death here, which took place just weeks after negotiations began, except to say that it was brutally violent. He kept his gun on the table, so to speak, and thus maintained the combative posture that led to his tragic end on the floor of a pub, and to a months-long breakdown in the peace negotiations.

For most of us, the stakes in negotiations are not that high. Or are they? Surely successful negotiation in the ordinary day-to-day of life is precisely what enriches a society and stops it from ever getting to the kind of dysfunction experienced then in South Africa.

In negotiations of all kinds the best solution is never the one either party had in mind when the negotiations began. Invariably, the best solutions emerge along a third path, the path of innovation, where the diverse intelligence, insights and resources of the negotiating parties combine to produce something of far great quality and effectiveness than any of the participants could have anticipated at the beginning.

This is negotiation at its best: not a contest of wills, but the creative intersection of difference that results in innovation. When we do the hard work to build this kind of negotiation the result is not grudging compromise but, very often, a jubilant surprise.

Another leadership insight from

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