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February 2007

Workplace Issues

Can We Call a Truce?

Conflict happens. It happens in all areas of business. Disputes can arise among employees, between business partners, between a company and a client. And if such issues are not settled, bad things can happen; good people quit, profitable relationships dissolve, and great companies go under. This has always been true, but according to renowned mediator, Jeffrey Krivis, in a global economy the implications of conflict are more profound than ever before.

"In a world where relationships matter more than ever, mediation skills matter more than ever," said Krivis, author of "Improvisational Negotiation." Krivis serves corporations and individuals from all walks of life, helping them settle disputes before they end up in the courtroom. His book, which is packed with stories from his own experiences, reveals some fascinating ways he and other mediators have helped people to reach creative, mutually beneficial solutions.

What exactly is negotiation? Krivis said it's reframing a situation in order to get people to shift their positions in a way that makes a resolution possible. In short, negotiation is part art and part science. You needn't become a certified mediator in order to settle a dispute at work. You just need to understand some basics about human behavior, practice the fine art of paying attention, and offer yourself up as a neutral party who just wants to resolve the problem.

Here are 10 insights and tricks of the trade Krivis suggests you use:

1. Let People Tell Their Story
When a person is deeply upset about something, he or she really needs to get their side of the story out. This is a basic principle of mediation, and one that's important to remember when trying to resolve a conflict with an angry employee, client or other associate. Yes, allowing people to speak their minds can increase the level of conflict with which you must deal. That's okay. You have to get through the conflict phase to find the solution. Feeling that one has finally "been heard" can change an angry person's outlook dramatically. Plus, as he or she tells their side of the story, new information may come to light that allows a solution to emerge naturally.

2. Isolation Tends to Create Movement
If someone refuses to budge, take the spotlight off of him or her; isolation tends to create movement. When you are mediating a multi-party conflict, you often will discover that there is one person who insists on taking a hard line approach. This person refuses to compromise, shooting down every solution that's presented and holding out for what he or she wants. What is Krivis's suggestion? Take the attention off the "last person standing" and begin settling around them. "It's amazing how well the isolation technique works," Krivis said. "You'll find that the holdout starts to anxiously call and send e-mails, trying to get things going again. When their perceived power is neutralized, the person will quickly see the value of compromise."

3. Break the Stone Face
When someone seems "locked up," dig for the emotion behind their stone face. Krivis recently mediated a situation in which a well-known television producer was on the verge of being sued for plagiarism. Essentially, the plaintiff claimed that the producer had "stolen" his idea for a successful situation comedy TV show. When anyone talked to him about his case, he gave short, robotic answers and showed no emotion. So Krivis asked the plaintiff, "What is it you really want to achieve here?"

"The plaintiff almost broke down," Krivis said. "He said, 'I never wanted to bring this case in the first place. I just want to break into television.' So I returned to the producer and said, 'Is there any way you can help this guy out?' And the producer said, 'Sure, let me talk to him.' So I got the plaintiff an audience with this extremely well respected producer, and the producer ended up offering him a development deal. By tapping into this person's repressed emotion, we were able to find a solution that made everyone happy."

4. Focus on the Main Issues
When people are picking flyspecks out of pepper, come in with a reality check. Often in a conflict, the various parties are so focused on the minutiae that they lose sight of the big picture and all its implications. As the mediator, you need to bring people back to reality by wrenching their attention away from the grain of sand and having them focus on the whole beach. Doing so may help resolution arrive at a quicker speed.

5. Identify the True Impediment
In every conflict, ask yourself "What is the true motivating factor here? What is really keeping this person from agreeing to a solution?" When you can identify the impediment, you can predict how the person will respond to certain ideas and you can shape negotiations accordingly.

6. Learn to "Read Minds"
Mind reading is not magic; it is a combination of observation and intuition, which is born of experience. "You can learn a lot about how each party sees a dispute by paying attention to body language and listening closely not only to their words but also to the emotional tone behind their words," Krivis said. "If you give them the opportunity, most people involved in a dispute will gladly talk about themselves, which gives you a chance to ask more questions and gain more information about their perspective. Once you see things from their point of view, you can stay one step ahead of them by anticipating how they might react and managing the negotiation accordingly."

7. Look for That Cooperative Environment
Think creatively about the ways people can cooperate rather than clash. In every negotiation, there is a tension between the desire to compete and the desire to cooperate. Be on the lookout for signals that support a cooperative environment. That's where the most creative solutions are born.

8. Edit the Script
"Edit the script" to help people see their situation in a different light. "People tend to get 'stuck' in their positions because they are telling what happened from a narrow viewpoint and in a negative and hopeless tone," Krivis said. "They've relayed their story over and over again, and their perception has become their reality. They can't see the situation any other way unless you help them to do so.

"As the mediator, you can take a larger view that looks not at one party or the other 'winning,' but at both parties working toward a mutual goal," he continued. "One way to help them get to this goal is to edit their script — retell their story about the dispute as a positive, forward-looking construction. In this way, you literally give them the words to see their options in a new light."

9. Avoid the "Winner's Curse" by Carefully Pacing Negotiation
Believe it or not, it is possible to reach a solution too quickly. We all have an inner clock that lets us know how long a negotiation should take. When a deal seems too easy, a kind of buyer's remorse can set in that leaves people with second thoughts about the outcome. One or both parties may be left with the feeling that if things had moved more slowly, they might have cut a better deal. Here's the bottom line, said Krivis: Don't rush the dance or the negotiation will fail. "Even when you know you can wrap things up quickly, it's to everyone's advantage to keep the negotiation proceeding normally, for a reasonable amount of time, before the inevitable settlement," he advised.

10. Realize That Every Conflict Can't be Solved
What if you've tried and tried to help two warring factions find a fair solution and you just can't? It may sound odd coming from a mediator, but Krivis points out that some conflicts just aren't winnable. "Not every negotiation is going to have a win-win outcome," he said. "Not everyone can live together in harmony. There are times you just have to accept that both parties are going to leave the table equally unhappy. When you've mediated enough conflicts, you will know in your gut when that time has arrived. Isolate the participants if possible and just move on."

All this talk of well-paced dances, inner clocks and gut feelings may seem alien to "just the facts" business types, but Krivis said you'd better get comfortable with the idea that there are no hard and fast rules. Negotiation is all about going with the flow and seizing opportunities as they arise. You can familiarize yourself with the tools, but there's no substitute for jumping right in.







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