When the world can help you: The case for negotiation

May 1st 1960.

A U2 spyplane is flying over the Soviet Union collecting intel for the United States. The pilot, Francis Gary Powers, is in command. Suddenly, he loses control of his plane. Spiralling out of control, he manages to eject, but is captured by Soviet authorities and placed under arrest.

At the same time, American authorities have a Soviet spy and an interesting situation: one American spy in Soviet hands, one Soviet spy in American hands, and one American college student in the hands of the East German government–a government playing puppet to the Soviet regime.

Or, put more dramatically:

Sworn enemies, yet still both win

By the time that the Soviets shot down the spy plane, relations between both countries were rapidly deteriorating. The main weapon of this fight? Information gleaned from spying on the enemy.

With a culture of distrust permeating any conversation, it seemed unlikely that any kind of deal would be struck between the nations–let alone actually being able to free both Americans and return the Soviet spy.

Glienicke Bridge where the spy exhange took place
Glienicke Bridge. Photo credit to Max Moreau.

And yet, everyone won thanks to one thing: negotiation. On February 10, 1962, Francis Gary Powers was exchanged for Francis Abel, the Soviet spy on the Glienicke Bridge, bringing an end to incident in a quiet and successful way. But this win didn’t happen out of the blue; it was the result of principled and deliberate actions on both sides to sway the power of the other.

A delicate dance

The way that most people in the world negotiate is flat-out wrong. The word negotiation conjures up images of shouting, threatening, and displays of power intended to intimidate and thoughts of lies and half truths intended to distract. But force is not only a terrible way to negotiate, it’s an easy way to lose the trust that we desperately need to succeed in. Rather than threats, patience and respect lie at the heart of negotiation.

That’s what was pitched by Harvard researchers Roger Fisher, William L. Ury, and Bruce Patton in their book “Getting to Yes.” Their model presents a basic, four-part framework for ensuring that negotiations can start and stay on the right foot.

Their four-part framework requires us to do four things:

  1. to stop thinking of the person we’re talking to as an enemy as more as a partner
  2. to stop blindly following what we want and to think critically about why we want what we do
  3. to forge a bond partnership that works together to find way where both sides can win, not just you
  4. to come up with objective ways to make sure that both sides are holding up their side of the deal.

Seems simple enough; but when anyone is thrown into a complex situation with a lot to lose on top of personal pride, rational thought goes out the window.

Dance lessons

The American university system is one of the best in the world, producing top-quality graduates year after year. However, few of those who leave with bachelors degrees have ever even thought of the concept of negotiations, let alone learned how to do it properly.

Well, so what?

The problem with this is that as full-fledged adults, most graduates have a need to negotiate on a daily basis at work and in life. So what we’re doing is the same as asking a fresh-faced grad to swing dance on the spot when they’ve never had a single dance lesson.

So rather than getting this:

we get this:

Sure, that grad may try hard; but at best that grad will waste time and effort to get something that remotely resembles dancing and at worst can hurt someone.

One thing is sure, we need to learn how to dance. Between the conflict-resolution and communication skills, even one course on practical, principled negotiation can make a world of difference in improving the way that we communicate among ourselves. Right now, most American students don’t see negotiation until after graduation either with a Masters of Science in Negotiation or one-off seminars.

This is not good enough. And while a major challenge lies in getting cash-strapped universities to see enough value in negotiation to begin to offer it as a course, in the end the educational benefits far outweigh the costs.

It’s time to find a dance partner.

Feature photo by Tim Swaan. You you like what I write? Follow my 140 character rants on Twitter.


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