Many negotiations turn sour when the wrong thing is said

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Think back on the events of a recent day. Did you negotiate? Did you win? It may be hard to say, since so many of our daily negotiations may go unrecognized. Following a fictional character through her day will help you answer those questions.

Helen, we will call her, awoke to the alarm clock at 6:45 A.M. She waited a moment, but Jim, her husband, did not stir, so she climbed over him to turn off the alarm. She found this irritating, especially with her bad back. Jim’s son from his prior marriage, Noel, was staying with them for the week while his mom traveled. Helen went to his door and called to him before heading down to the kitchen to pack his lunch for school.

Then she went back upstairs to get ready for work. But the bathroom door was closed and the shower water was running. Was it Noel or Jim? No, Jim was no longer in bed. It must be Noel. But that meant no time for
her to shower before work, since it was her turn to drive the car pool to work and she had to leave home early to pick up everyone else. She wished she had remembered Noel was coming when they discussed the car pool schedule at work; it would have been more convenient for her to drive next week. As she stood in front of her
closet, she debated whether to wear her new red skirt, which she had just bought, or the older gray one. After looking to see what blouses were clean, she decided that the red skirt would have to wait until she had time to do some ironing.

Helen has not gotten very far in her day and already she has ended up on the wrong side of five negotiations. Did you take note of them? She accommodated Jim’s irritating habit of sleeping through the alarm (rather than nudging him and waking him up).

She generously packed a lunch for his son, and by so doing she lost her opportunity to take a shower before rushing to her car pool. To Helen, all three interactions with her family are probably losses, and there’s no point losing in any situation unless you gain something in the future from it. These sacrifices were not likely to be noticed and reciprocated. And her fourth loss—agreeing to drive in an inconvenient week—also accomplishes nothing in the long
term. It is an example of suboptimal results due to incomplete information, a remarkably common problem for most negotiators.

Finally, her “negotiation” with herself over which skirt to wear led to her decision to wear the older skirt because she had nothing ironed to go with the new red one. But let’s not dwell on this, as Helen’s workday is likely to hold many more negotiation situations for her.

Helen left the house a little late, and a little irritated at Jim, who had driven off without offering an apology. Perhaps that is why she was driving faster than usual on the freeway and why she was pulled over by a state trooper. Even worse, she forgot how outspoken Fred, her coworker who was riding in the front seat, could be—or she certainly would have told him to keep his mouth shut!

The police officer had clocked her at only five miles over the speed limit and seemed ready to let her off with a warning when Fred started arguing with him. Fred is a senior manager at her company and often loses his
temper quickly. He was angry this morning since he had an early staff meeting and he told the officer in no uncertain terms how inconvenient the situation was for him. Now Helen had a speeding ticket to pay, and Fred was going to be even later for that meeting.

What mistake did Helen make this time? Another common one: she failed to plan and control others’ communication in her negotiation with the police officer. She should have managed Fred even if he is her boss. Many negotiations turn sour when the wrong thing is said, the timing is bad, or the wrong person gets involved.
The importance of planning the communications was brought home to Helen later that morning when her project team met.

Her team is charged with cutting costs in the assembly of one of her company’s products. They had begun to work with suppliers to reduce prices, and one of the suppliers was resisting the changes they proposed. Then Helen had called an old friend at the supplier company, who was able to get his firm to agree to a concession. Just as a solution was in sight, however, her friend took a new job and left the company. Now the supplier refused to sign the new
contract. Her boss was impatient and wanted her to disband the current team and start all over again. But Helen knew this would hurt her relationships with the team members—all of them key personnel from the main functional areas of her firm.

She suspected that these business relationships with team members were more important than the small price cut her boss wanted her to obtain from the supplier. But how could she get her boss to see it that way? She was not sure what to do, but she knew she had some difficult negotiations ahead of her