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negotiating life

Other People’s Interests

How two sisters can share a diamond ring

The word “negotiation” usually conjures up images of high-stakes international diplomacy or multimillion-dollar business deals. But if you’ve ever haggled with a teenager who wants to use the family car, deliberated with your spouse over where to go on vacation, or tried to figure out who will pick up the kids from school, you’ve negotiated. Simply put, negotiation is a process by which two or more people seek to advance their individual interests by agreeing on a desired action.

The first rule of negotiation is to understand interests, both your own and the other person’s. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Although people negotiate to get what they want, they often fail or refuse to reveal what that is. Instead, they make demands and stake out positions and then try to impose them on the other person, an approach that often prevents agreement. The following true story illustrates the problem.

A wealthy man died and left all his property to be divided equally between his two daughters, Janet and Claire. All went smoothly until they came to the old man’s ring, a diamond signet that he had worn most of his life. Both daughters wanted it, and each justified her position on a principle. Janet pointed to the fact that she had taken care of their father in his final illness. Claire claimed he had promised her the ring years before. Their positions seemed irreconcilable, and relations between the two sisters grew tense. Finally, in frustration, Janet asked Claire a key question: “Why do you want the ring?” Claire replied, “Because it has a beautiful diamond. I thought I’d make a pendant out of it.” Janet responded, “I want it because it reminds me of our father.”

Once the two sisters realized that their underlying interests were not necessarily incompatible, they explored solutions to their common problem. They finally agreed that Claire would have the diamond replaced with Janet’s birthstone, return the ring to Janet, and keep the diamond. This was an example of a “win-win” negotiation—one that allowed both sisters to satisfy their underlying interests.

This story imparts some useful lessons about negotiating:

Make your negotiations problem-solving exercises. A negotiation is most productive when both people see it as a way to solve a common problem, rather then a contest of wills or a debate over positions.

Uncover and discuss interests. Like Janet and Claire, many negotiators state their positions forthrightly but don’t reveal the interests and needs behind those positions. That causes the other person to make false assumptions and to see the process as a battle of wills.

Ask the right questions. If the other person doesn’t reveal why she wants what she wants, probe deeper by asking questions that begin with the word “why.” If this doesn’t work, speculate. To deal with a reticent Claire, Janet might have said, “I guess you want the ring to sell for cash.” That might have provoked Claire to correct her by saying, “No, I want the ring because I like the diamond.”

Reveal your own interests. Problem-solving negotiation is a mutual process. An effective way to encourage the other person to talk about her interests is to talk about yours.

Create options together. Once interests are out in the open, suggest options that will satisfy those interests. Unlike a position, which can be satisfied only by its acceptance, an interest can often be advanced in several different ways.

Once you learn to uncover and work with interests, both yours and the other person’s, you may find that discussions about the family car, vacations, and picking up the kids go a lot more smoothly.

JESWALD W. SALACUSE is the Henry J. Braker Professor of Law and a former dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He is the author of The Global Negotiator (Palgrave Macmillan), from which this commentary is drawn. His latest book is Leading Leaders: How to Manage Smart, Talented, Rich, and Powerful People (AMACOM 2006).
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