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The Power of Understanding

Increasing Negotiation and Leadership Performance through the Power of Understanding


Laws of Power 31: Leverage Social Engagement Skills

By Karen S. Walch

Throughout this series, we have addressed the Machiavellian moral and rational quest to advance egoistic self-interest and the need to exert leverage over others for negotiation success.  This week we will explore the stamina, certainty and clarity required in order to yield such leverage over others in a classic negotiation approach. As I recover from jet lag this week after a Middle East and India tour with students, I ponder the reality of this presumption of classic power and leverage. Can negotiators practically attain enough clarity about what we think other negotiators may need in a negotiation? Is it possible for negotiators today to generate the stamina required to control others’ behaviors in a world of bewildering velocity and complexity?

I say it is not possible to prepare adequately, or is it physically possible to maintain leverage over others in a negotiation with any certainty. This does not mean that systematic planning is hopeless. It does mean, however, that effective preparation must include a focus on social engagement skills instead.  This means that rather than planning to leverage your resources over another in a contest of wills, success stems from a plan to problem solve with others and to engage them in a constructive negotiation process.

As an educator, I have an exhilarating opportunity to explore the human moving parts of the global economy and to study “behind the scenes” with real men and women negotiators.  On my latest trip and in my classrooms, I find an abundance of successful examples which illustrate how negotiators achieve not only their own personal goals, but also generate opportunities for their communities despite the economic down turns and limited resources.  Foundations to the successes I observe are often the result of skilled social interaction and engagement activities on the most fundamental human level.

A key quality of such negotiators is their courage to question their own assumptions, ideas, and emotions when preparing to present a proposal to a counterpart.  Their effectiveness is not in knowing what they think a counterpart may need in a negotiation, but in how to engage others in defining what their primary needs or problems are.  Two preliminary skills necessary for effective social engagement activities are:  1) The ability to notice what is apparent about another’s interests and behaviors, and 2) The ability to use that information in problem solving about a counterpart’s point of view.

With the development of these skills, leverage can be enhanced through the emotional and social engagement of others.  As the negotiators begin to problem solve, they are able to create a new mental map about their own self-interests and how to create something new in a problem situation.  The ability to seek out fresh information to confirm or disconfirm traditionally held views about others helps to create more relevant and sustainable solutions. Successful negotiators are able to identify the tangible AND intangible interests in any human interaction.  For example, when issues about one’s reputation, security, recognition, or risk sharing can be explored, the energy to problem solve together are generated.

I recently observed these skills by Rawan, a woman who works as an architect in a predominantly male firm in Afghanistan.  About a year ago, Rawan’s firm had an opportunity to present a proposal to a respected client for a new house.  Rawan not only had to win the client but also had to position herself relative to her internal partners in the bid for the contract with the client.

She recalls how powerless she initially felt as the only female and the youngest, least experienced architect at that time.  As we reviewed her potentially ‘powerless’ situation, she discovered that it was her effective social engagement skills which won her this contract, one of the largest her firm had acquired.

As her fellow architects were presenting persuasive and colorful presentations to the client, she had an opportunity to observe the client’s behaviors and nonverbal communication throughout the preliminary bid process.

She recalls how she noticed that this client had a lot of affection toward his wife and indirectly spoke of this project as a gift for his wife.  Rawan began to ask him and his wife about some of the features they would like to see in the house and how it represented a home for their family.  She was able to define with them a set of unique problems they had about the design for a house and the desire for beauty in this new home.

Rawan developed a warm relationship with the couple and was asked to make a proposal as a result.  Before she made the presentation, she recalls making a special effort to confirm her assumptions about what the client wanted to see in the design.

Although she was not aware of it at the time, it seemed very ‘natural’ to her to explore the intangible issues about love and relationships around a project.  She discovered that winning this contract was not founded on the tangible issues about her experience or the budget, for example.  As she became more mindful of the decision making process the client was using at the time, she was able to adapt her proposal and style to influence the client to commission her as the lead architect on the project.

Law 30 Exercises

Steps to increase social engagement skills:

1.  Recognize your own and counterpart’s motivations and goals in making decisions

2. Understand how those goals affect their decision making.

3. Be mindful that their decision making method may be different from your own, and that you can adapt to a counterpart’s decision making method to increase your own leverage and influence.

Extra Credit

For an interesting read on how travel piques our curiosity and creativity as negotiators, read:  The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton (Vintage International, 2002).

48 Laws for 21st Century Global Negotiators: Join Thunderbird Professor Karen S. Walch, Ph.D., as she explores the laws of power for 21st century global negotiators. Each Monday she discusses one law and provides an exercise to identify and enhance individual negotiation power. Go to the main menu for the series.

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