When All You Hear Is “No”

gtreHave you ever found yourself negotiating with a brick wall? Maybe not a wall, but an opponent, coworker, spouse or five-year old so entrenched in her position that it seems to take a herculean effort to procure even the slightest movement?

I’ve previously quoted from the slim but powerful text about negotiation strategy, Getting To Yes. One of the authors of that landmark, William Ury, subsequently wrote Getting Past No: Negotiating With Difficult People. I don’t know about you, but anyone who doesn’t go along with my program is clearly difficult.

Ury developed a five-step strategy for making progress with these . . . er . . . difficult people. The first step is to take your own emotions out of the equation; this will help prevent you from reacting without thinking, which can immediately stall or even end productive negotiations. Ury calls this Going to the Balcony. He describes it thusly:

“When you find yourself facing a difficult negotiation, you need to step back, collect your wits, and see the situation objectively. Imagine you are negotiating on a stage and then imagine yourself climbing onto a balcony overlooking the stage. The ‘balcony’ is a metaphor for a mental attitude made of detachment. From the balcony you can calmly evaluate the conflict, almost as if you were a third-party. You can think constructively for both sides and look for a mutually satisfactory way to resolve the problem.” (Getting Past No (Bantam 1991), p.17.)

Step two is to Disarm Your Opponent. Here, I picture Jason Bourne using some slick Krav Maga move to take and use his opponent’s own weapon against him. Sadly, Ury’s tactic is not so sexy. But it’s easier. The goal is to step to your opponent’s side. This requires active listening, which gives your opponent an opportunity to articulate her position, then paraphrasing it back to her. Ury writes, “It is not enough for you to listen . . . [h]e needs to know that you’ve heard what he has said.” (Id. at 39.) Once you both agree that you understand your opponent’s position, the second part of this step is to create a favorable climate for negotiation. This can result from one or a combination of efforts, which can include  acknowledging our opponent’s feelings and agreeing wherever you can, which can help you “accumulate yeses.” Ury summarizes this step as follows:

“[T]he hurdles you face are your opponent’s suspicion and hostility, his closed ears, and his lack of respect. Your best strategy is to step to his side. It is harder to be hostile toward someone who hears you out and acknowledges what you say and how you feel. It is easier to listen to someone who has listened to you. And respect breeds respect.” (Id. at 54.)

Ury’s third step is to reframe the dispute. “Reframing means recasting what your opponent says in a form that directs attention back to the problem of satisfying both sides’ interests. . . You act as he were trying to solve the problem, and thus draw him into the new game.” (Id. at 61.) This is tough to explain without an example; fortunately Ury provides one. He cites the 1979 SALT II arms talks with Soviet leadership. The US sent a very junior senator, Joe Biden, Jr., to Moscow to negotiate with (read: against) Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. Regardless how you feel about Joe Biden today, he certainly held his own on this early mission.

Gromyko quickly articulated the Soviet’s unequivocal nyet (no) to the US proposal. When it came time for Biden’s turn, here’s what happened:

“Instead of arguing with Gromyko and taking a counterposition, he slowly and gravely said, ‘Mr. Gromyko, you make a very persuasive case. I agree with much of what you’ve said. When I go back to my colleagues in the Senate, however, and report what you’ve just told me, some of them–like Senator Goldwater or Senator Helms–will not be persuaded, and I’m afraid their concerns will carry weight with others.’ Biden went on to explain their worries. ‘You have more experience in these arms-control matters than anyone else alive. How would you advise me to respond to my colleagues’ concerns?’

Gromyko could not resist the temptation to offer advice to the inexperienced young American. He started coaching him on what he should tell the skeptical senators. One by one, Biden raised the arguments that would need to be dealt with, and Gromyko grappled with each of them. In the end, appreciating perhaps for the first time how the amendment would help win wavering votes, Gromyko reversed himself and gave his consent.” (Id. at 61-62.)

See what Biden did? “He reframed the conversation as a constructive discussion about how to meet the senators’ concerns and win ratification of the treaty.” (Id. at 62.) When trying to reframe, Ury suggests posing questions to your opponent. Ask why, why not, what if, and, as Biden demonstrates, how would you do it. This turns your opponent into a collaborator.

Step 4 of Ury’s strategy is to make it easy for your opponent to say yes. He calls this building them “a golden bridge.”  This strikes me as connected in a fundamental way with Ury’s third step, reframing the issue. When Biden solicited Gromyko’s advice, he was, in effect, building him a golden bridge to see the issue from Biden’s (and, therefore, the US) perspective and cross the golden bridge by reversing his entrenched position.

According to Ury, what’s important is to resist the temptation to tell your opponent anything. Telling, aka “pushing may actually make it more difficult for your counterpart to agree. It underscores the fact that the proposal is your idea, not his.” (Id. at 90.) If you can persuade your opponent–overtly or covertly–that your proposal or goal is actually her idea, this builds a golden bridge making it very easy for her to adopt your position. Ury makes several suggestions, including helping your opponent save face, offering her choices and help writing her victory speech back to her superiors or contingent.

Step 5 is when you crush your opponent–bring her to her knees, right? Actually, no. In the final step of Ury’s strategy, while you make it hard for them to say no, this is done by bringing them to their senses, not their knees. Unlike the “power game” which we might instinctively resort to, which involves making threats if your opponent doesn’t agree to your terms, Ury urges instead that we think in terms of educating your opponent of what the alternative is if an agreement is not reached. Again, the better way to educate is not by telling your opponent what you’re going to do, or telling her what will happen, but instead to ask reality-testing questions. Here are three reality-testing questions Ury likes:

  1. “What do you think will happen if we don’t agree?”
  2. “What do you think I will do?”
  3. “What will you do?”

Ury acknowledges that this won’t always work. He reminds us of one of the most important concepts from Getting To Yes, formulating your own Best Alternative To A Negotiated Agreement (BATNA). Before you resort to actually implementing your BATNA, Ury suggests “you should let your opponent know what you intend to do. You want to give him a chance to reconsider his refusal to negotiate.” (Id. at 117.)

The book obviously covers these strategies better and in greater detail. I recommend Getting Past No to anyone who spends a good part of her career–or life–negotiating with difficult people. Then again, don’t we all?

About Alex Craigie

I am an AV-Preeminent rated trial lawyer. My practice focuses on helping companies throughout Southern California resolve employment and business disputes. The words in this blog are mine alone, and do not reflect the views of the Dykema law firm or its clients. Also, these words are not intended to constitute legal advice, and reading or commenting on this blog does not create attorney-client relationship. Reach me at acraigie@dykema.com. View all posts by Alex Craigie

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