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Creating the Conditions for a Win-Win Outcome

In our last blog, we looked at the concept of Nudge Theory and its relevance to the delicate art of negotiating. By focussing on the (mostly subconscious) factors that influence us when we accept or reject any given proposition, Nudge Theory can be summed up – a little crudely, but not unjustly – as convincing another party that an idea, if not entirely their own, does at least serve their best interests.

Or to put it another way, it is about creating win-win situations in which everyone sat around the negotiating table believes they are getting a favourable outcome – whoever the outcome may actually favour most.

There is a touch of the psychological sleight of hand about Nudge Theory, an application of a level of understanding of the human psyche that means you don’t have to rely on reasoned argument alone to get your own way. But do we all have to become budding Derren Brown’s to be able to succeed as negotiators? Do we all need to study the mechanics of human decision-making to an advanced level to be able to create win-win outcomes when thrashing out the terms of a particularly complex deal?

Thankfully, no. While the psychological and behavioural processes which underpin concepts like Nudge Theory may be best left to academics who specialise in the field, their practical applications can be learnt by anyone. Indeed, the knowledge required to create the right conditions for win-win outcomes is something that skilled negotiators have honed into a fine art over the centuries. Here are some of the key principles.

Keep as many outcomes open as possible

The classic hardball ‘it’s my way or the highway’ negotiating tactic can never create a win-win outcome. As soon as you narrow the options on the table down to binaries, there will always be a winner and loser, you will always risk the other party rejecting the outcome you really want, no matter how sure you are of your position. By keeping a variety of options open, you increase the likelihood that everyone can get at least something they want. This is also a great way to counter people who are determined to approach negotiations with an either/or mindset – if they reject one proposal, you have others to come back with.

Find common ground

One of the most enduring phrases from the UK’s calamitous Brexit negotiations has been the ‘red lines’ set out by Theresa May at the very start of the process. While this may have been politically expedient to appease her political base, from a negotiating point of view it is disastrous. When parties approach negotiations focusing on defending certain positions, views inevitably become increasingly entrenched and things just get more and more difficult. The skilled negotiator does the opposite – they start by searching out the common ground, whatever it might be that the various sides share as mutual interests, and build a consensus around that before laying out their terms and conditions. All red lines do is suggest you are not prepared to think creatively enough to find a mutually satisfactory solution.

Maintain an open mind

Another common negotiating error is to assume you know exactly what the other parties are looking for. This leads to prefabricated strategies which may have no appeal whatsoever to the other side – and when they reject them, there is a tendency to assume they are just being difficult, leading people to dig in further. The art of negotiation is as much about listening as it is persuading. When you truly understand where the other parties’ interests lie, which can only be after a period of listening, then you can start to formulate plans which get their attention.

Don’t get involved in the personal

It should go without saying, but once the basic rules of etiquette and civility ebb away from negotiations, you are on a hiding to nothing. Yes, we are emotional creatures and we respond to other people and the circumstances of our interactions in highly emotional ways. But the successful negotiator must control their own emotions as much as they must seek to influence those of the other parties. Once you stop seeing a negotiation as a problem which must be solved, and instead view it as a battle you have to win, you greatly reduce the likelihood of gaining a win-win outcome.

Even in the face of provocation and rudeness, always maintain a calm, polite facade. Use such displays of emotional behaviour as a chink in the other side’s armour, maintain focus on the issues at hand and by doing so take control of the situation. People who become angry or rude when things don’t go their own way are also more likely to jump all over any proposition that they think serves their interests. That’s where having a variety of options in mind and looking for common ground comes into their own, applied with the right kind of a nudge, of course.