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How Negotiators Listen to Improve Workplace Dynamics
By Leslie Mulligan
By the time you are 90, my dad tells me, you are finally ready to listen, even if your hearing isn’t as good as it used to be. But that’s ok, because listening isn’t about hearing, it‘s about understanding. Negotiating in the workplace, however, requires us to have this skill well before we retire. The good news – better listening can be learned.
Recently, my 90-year old father asked me to buy Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People for my 19 year-old nephew on his birthday. Now, as gifts go, my nephew was probably not overly excited, but I understand that my dad wanted to convey some important life lessons to his millennial grandson. I was happy to oblige, because that book holds pearls of wisdom that I often emphasize when I teach our Watershed negotiation curriculum, not the least of which is how well we listen to each other to understand, versus simply listening to respond.
Listening is a critical skill for negotiating at work for 2 reasons: Comprehension and Concession.
#1. Listening = Comprehension
If you don’t know why your colleague wants what they want, you can’t effectively solve the problem. Instead, you find yourself in a time consuming and dysfunctional trail of mutual positioning. Listening opens the door to real understanding of your colleagues’ needs.
Real understanding does not mean sympathy (feeling sorry for someone) or giving in because of some sympathy you may feel. Real understanding results from what Covey calls “empathic listening” -- listening that “gets inside another person's frame of reference. You look out through it, you see the world the way they see the world, you understand their paradigm, you understand how they feel.” Yet this is not how most of us listen!
Example: For the last few weeks, one of the two supervisors you manage has been arriving 5 to 10 minutes late to your weekly morning meeting with them and their direct reports. You prepare to talk to him armed with reasons why this is unacceptable (disruptive, team morale, productivity). The conversation is not likely to go well because you are preparing to position yourself - not to understand.
If you instead engage in empathic listening – state the problem and how it feels to you, and ask what’s going on -- you might discover that this supervisor has purchased his first house further out from work, and has been struggling to figure out an effective commuting pattern. Now you can discuss solutions that consider the problem from both points of view:
- Can the meeting be moved to mid-morning?
- Can we let the team know what the problem is and expect it to resolve itself in a few weeks?
- Does anyone else at the company commute from the same area that may have some ideas?
- How about shifting his hours to start earlier one day a week when the meeting is held?
- Or maybe if traffic is a problem for anyone on the team, can they call into the meeting, rather than attend in person?
#2. Listening = Concession
One of the greatest needs people have is to be heard. Sometimes no movement can happen until people feel heard. Authentic listening will always be perceived as goodwill – a concession, which often results in a concession back to you, a get to your give. At a minimum, your colleague will show some form of appreciation. In addition, without listening, we can easily give away unnecessary concessions, or reject something that ultimately benefits us.
Example: Your boss asks you to finish a project 1 month earlier than planned. You are ready to argue that this is not fair to you and your team after all the work and successes you’ve achieved. If you instead listen to understand rather than jump to respond, you would discover that finishing early means that your project will be on the upcoming quarterly Senior Management Staff Meeting agenda, giving the best chance for you to gain the needed headcount and budget increases the project deserves. And the exposure to your leadership role will help your career. Yet only minutes ago, you were ready to argue against your boss’s request.
Do you consider yourself a “good listener”? Most of us are told at some point (in our personal and professional lives) that we are not listening! Empathic listening is easier said than done – but it is a “learned skill”. You can teach an old dog new tricks.
Use these tips to improve your negotiations with more empathic listening:
Don’t get bored; get curious - sincerely curious
Ask big open-ended questions like
- Why, Why Not;
- What if, How about, What else could we do;
- What harm would come from;
- How could we change, avoid, resolve.
- And always test your assumptions by asking about them.
In addition to asking questions, you can also show your curiosity by encouraging your colleague:
- Tell me more
- I am intrigued by your idea
- My team (or boss) will want to understand that better
- What other thoughts were considered before coming up with that idea/solution
Remember: People love to talk, and are known to feel so good afterwards if you let them talk, that they give more than they get; but it won’t help if you don’t listen.
Passion for a position does not require an argument in return
Colleagues get passionate about an idea, especially if it is theirs. They become invested in an effort, an outcome, or even just the hope of avoiding a major problem. And if someone senses resistance, emotions surface and can sabotage agreement or blind you both to a perfectly good solution. This is especially true in the workplace when one’s professional status is at stake.
Be prepared to manage your own emotions – and to help your colleagues manage theirs. Managing emotions doesn't mean squelching them. Instead, BEFORE you oppose a co-worker’s position, acknowledge – with sincerity --
- Their conviction or even heartfelt belief;
- The work they put in already; and
- Their reputation or stature.
Don’t feel compelled to argue or persuade, or even negotiate, until you have allowed them to speak their piece- and be sure you listen. This may be your opportunity to make listening your only concession!
Make it personal
Even when dealing only with facts and data, getting personal is one of the most valuable ways to ensure you are communicating effectively. Just ask Alan Alda, the renowned TV actor of MASH fame. Alda joined Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism faculty in its Center for Communicating Science to study the challenges scientists face in effective communication. In his new book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face? he reminds us that speaker and listener are persons. In a June interview with Newsweek on his book tour, Alda reinforced this concept:
“If we aren’t concerned with observing or imagining what a person is thinking or feeling when we are trying to communicate with them, then we are leaving them out….. the person doing the speaking needs to pay attention to the audience, whether that’s one person or many.”
Alda notes that scientists who take a more logical, fact based approach to communicating are prizing accuracy over actual understanding. Making the experience personal – empathizing with our listener -- is crucial to ensure that our points will resonate with our audience. Alda’s book speaks mostly to the scientific community – helping them cross the divide between a scientist’s knowledge and the audience’s understanding of that knowledge.
But the general problem of effective communication is bi-directional of course, and nowhere is that more evident than in our current political landscape, where polarization is becoming the norm. Rob Willer, a social psychologist at Stanford University, has been studying political polarization in the U.S. for the last few years and gave a TED talk on the subject. In an interview in the Stanford News, he concludes that politicians “must take the time to really listen to one another, to understand one another’s values and to think creatively about why someone with different political and moral commitments from their own should nonetheless come to agree with them. Empathy and respect will be critical if we are going to sew our country back together.”
Politics aside, Willer’s comments effectively sum up how we all can be more successful in any negotiation – a win-win negotiation results when your proposed solution makes it clear that you see the situation or problem from your counterpart’s viewpoint.
Now back to my dad and my nephew – and that well-meaning, if not much loved, birthday gift. My father and my nephew have different life perspectives and views of the world, but they do listen to each other – for the most part. Having spent decades with my dad, I realize that he is not always the best listener himself. But I know he is genuinely curious about his grandson’s views. That is always the best place to start when you need to negotiate solutions, across conference tables or kitchen tables. And full disclaimer, I did buy a cool pair of sports headphones for my nephew, on my dad’s behalf – to make it a bit more personal!