Maybe it seems like every day you find yourself in situations that require successful negotiation with a disagreeing party, where mutual compromise would be vastly welcomed. Too often, however, you end up in a frustrating, even heated, stand-off.
Recent Harvard psychology research published in the November 2019 journal Nature Human Behavior indicates just what the problem might be. It’s a problem born from inaccurate beliefs that drive unhelpful behavior and directly cause unnecessary interpersonal and intergroup conflict.
What inaccurate beliefs, you ask?
Your propensity for having a dramatically inflated sense of just how negative the other side feels about what you might propose. If you think that no matter what you propose the other side will reject it outright or even hate it, you’re far less likely to try to compromise, viewing it as a waste of time. This leads to missed opportunities to negotiate and compromise and raises tensions between opposing parties.
The researchers proved this in a series of experiments between Democrats and Republicans, finding both sides were much more willing to compromise than the other side thought, yet with both sides resisting trying to do so because of incorrect assumptions about the other. These false assumptions even applied to disagreements and abandonment of effort to try and compromise within each group.
How to bridge the gap by not burning the bridge.
Researcher Mina Cikara told Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge: “How we attribute motives to other people becomes distorted when we stop thinking of them as individuals and instead move to a framework of ‘us versus them’.”
So the first step is to stop thinking of the other side as a stoic entity, devoid of rational thought and automatically unwilling to go along with the idea of middle ground. Assume a cooperative framework is in place, rather than a combative one.
Here’s a trick I use, you can establish whether or not a more collegial framework is in place simply by asking, “Would you be open to discussing….” General managers in professional baseball use this approach all the time; they never assume a star player on another team that they covet is off the table. They place a phone call to ask, no matter how unlikely, “Would you be willing to entertain talks of a possible trade for…” They’re often surprised at the receptivity on the other side of the phone.
Once you establish a cooperative framework is at least a possibility, the researchers wisely point to the importance of accurate forecasting, i.e. starting negotiation from a place of more accurately understanding the perceptions of the other side.
I’ve found this to be a big source of intergroup conflict in my corporate days; two groups in conflict with each other largely because every person on both sides is too busy trying to build and execute their own point of view to take time to truly understand what the other side is thinking.
If you take the first step described previously to ask “Would you be willing to…”, you’re thus starting from a place of cooperation, but then the work falls to opening discussions up and having a willingness to listen and understand where the other side is coming from. As researcher Cikara said, “All it takes is one person to break the cycle.”
The good news is that if both sides are assuming a cooperative framework is in place, the research shows that more accurate perceptions of opposing sides are likely to be drawn, which is more likely to lead to reconciliatory behavior.
Given the number of daily opportunities to negotiate, compromise, and reconcile, it’s worth setting yourself up for success in so doing. Do that by setting a higher bar for understanding the true perceptions of the other side.
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