Problem solving is something most of us do day in, day out, often without realising it. Alongside our talent for thinking in abstracts and communicating what is going on internally, our powers of reasoning and prowess at finding solutions even when the odds seem insurmountable are amoung the most remarkable characteristics of the human brain.
In the world of business, problem solving is widely recognised as one of the most valuable ‘soft skills’ employers look out for in would-be recruits and which they seek to nurture in their workforce. Yet when it comes to the all important field of negotiating, it is striking how often people seem to lose the ability to think around an issue in a constructive and meaningful way.
There may be good reason for this. As we noted in a previous article on the art of negotiation, we are not the purely objective, rational creatures we like to believe we are, and certainly not when trying to strike deals with people who may have views and agendas very much opposed to our own. Emotions play a significant part, and when another party starts to put barriers in the way of us achieving our desired objectives, there is a tendency for positions to become entrenched and for heels to be firmly dug in.
The result of two or more parties becoming increasingly determined to stick to exactly the same proposition the more the other side resists is neither conducive to effective problem solving nor to negotiating favourable outcomes. That’s why tricky negotiations can often have the feeling of stags locking antlers, rather than professional people looking for a mutually agreeable compromise.
Skilled arbitrators therefore by necessity have to be skilled problem solvers too. When different parties hold apparently incompatible views on a topic under discussion, they have to be able to suspend the instinctive tendency to try to force one’s own views through, and instead look for a way around the roadblock. As with many types of problem solving, being able to take a fresh perspective is a key tool to have in your armoury.
Thinking around a stalemate
So what does that look like when you are faced with a high-stakes negotiation where another party seems determined to push an agenda diametrically opposed to your own? The first thing is to try to get to the bottom of why both sides are taking such incompatible positions.
This is more tricky than it sounds, because the tendency is to assume you know what is motivating another party when in fact it could be something completely different. It’s common to hear people who are going through difficult negotiations complain that they have made concessions to accommodate the other side’s needs and wants. When there is still no movement, it is pertinent to ask whether the negotiating team ever bothered to really find out what those needs and wants actually were.
The next stage is to rethink your own objectives, and specifically the way you are communicating them. Is there something in the terms and conditions you are proposing that automatically predisposes the other party to reject them? Do they actually reflect what you are really looking for? Good negotiators are able to take a step back and look at their own positions from a fresh perspective, too.
For example, if you make overtures to a rival business about a takeover and they flat out refuse, it’s worth asking what you actually want to get out of any deal. The underlying motivation is probably to grow your business and improve your margins. If this is what you really want, then there are lots of ways you can pursue that as an objective, including reframing how you approach a competitor to suggest a mutually beneficial partnership or merger, rather than a takeover.
Finally, there is no substitute in problem solving for good old fashioned creative thinking. When you are trying to make the seemingly incompatible compatible, you often have no choice but to take a radically different approach. A good tip here is to take an ‘anything is possible’ approach – we’re often very quick to dismiss ideas or strategies as bad ideas, but apparently terrible suggestions can often contain the germ of something that works. When all other avenues have led to dead ends, you can’t afford to say anything is off the table. It’s time to resurrect those ideas you dismissed and start to think of ways they can be made to work.