There are few things more important in negotiation than understanding the other parties. Do you really know why they are taking certain positions? What do they know, think, and believe? How are their particular underlying interests influencing their negotiating behavior?
The best negotiators are deeply aware of the need to consider where the other side is coming from. They think about it, do some investigating, and make a series of educated guesses about negotiating partners and counterparties. That’s good but it is probably not good enough. When the stakes are high, even more is needed.
To negotiate at the very highest level requires a deep and real understanding of the other parties. In common vernacular, do you know what makes them “tick”? What are their true underlying motivations, drives, needs, and fears? Are they free to do what we are asking of them? Might there be other people or forces blocking them? In what ways are the hidden parts of their total situation affecting the negotiation process?
How can we “walk a mile in their shoes” in our effort to understand them and their circumstances? When I was his student, the late Roger Fisher developed a technique for “sitting in the other person’s chair.” It was a role reversal exercise that involved working with a partner. In the first step, a negotiator explains all she knows about the bargaining situation to a “helper” who is totally unaware of the details. By the end of the exercise, the negotiator is sitting in the counterparty’s seat and negotiating from that person’s point of view. I use Fisher’s method to this day and teach it to my students. There is nothing quite like “sitting in the other guy’s chair” for developing a fuller understanding of his actions.
Making a serious effort to know more about the “why” of the other side’s actions is simply good negotiating technique. But it also has a most interesting side-effect. In most cases, the more we learn about them, the more sympathetic we become to their situation. They are often discovered to be acting reasonably in an attempt to achieve legitimate goals. This can open a door to seeing them as the human beings they truly are. Indeed, if we come to perceive their interests as legitimate and their efforts as reasonable, we may actually want to help them attain their objectives. In that case, the stage is truly set for the kind of problem solving negotiation that can create real and lasting value.