You are not alone: separating people and problem

What to do when a disputant can’t make a deal or ‘face up’ to reality

The landmark negotiation book ‘Getting to Yes” (by Roger Fisher and William Ury) talks about the importance of separating the person from the problem. This is of course a nice idea, but the reality for most of us is that once we are emotionally triggered, or are deep into significant conflict, this becomes incredibly difficult to do in practice.

On receipt of bad news, such as a situation where the legal route offers no real resolution (or little chance of success), the person on the receiving end has a couple of options: to find a way of managing their own emotions or of finding someone to work with them (on a solution). The challenge of this is that the demand for sympathy or agreement in such a situation means that others around the person simply mirror and reinforce the same reactions, or completely counter them and tell the person they are wrong, thus making them the enemy. Both of these options reinforce the initial view of the person in the hot emotional situation and do little to counter the myopia.

So what is the alternative? How do you reduce the sense of threat and spur the frontal cortex into action? The answer seems to lie in a pair of skills, which often become almost instinctive to many good negotiators (including mediators). One of these is the recognition of your own emotional response to the person who is upset, so that you don’t enter and reinforce the same state that they are in. The other is managing to convey sufficient understanding of their circumstance for them to feel safe to disclose how they are feeling.

Much of this is best done by ‘picking someone up where they are emotionally’ (rather than trying to drag them to where you want them to be) and gradually, by consent taking the picture wider – leaving them in charge. This means open not closed questions, and mirroring back what you have understood. More than anything it requires patience.

This needs to be paired with the gradual eliciting process of asking questions that gradually open the aspects of the situation being considered. This includes the consequences and implications of different courses of action. So what does this look like? What else do I really want to happen? What might an acceptable and achievable outcome look like?

An updated extract from “I never let emotions get in my way: Managing your emotions in negotiation” by Isabel Phillips and Isobel Dent, which first appeared in How to Master Negotiation by CEDR (Macmillan, 2015).

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