Negotiate a better outcome

I’ve just finished reading Stephen R Covey’s latest book, “The 3rd Alternative: Solving Life’s Most Difficult Problems”. An interesting read, it features a great formula to negotiate a better outcome in a host of situations.

The principle

In both your business and social life there will be times when you need to solve problems. The sort of problems where you have one view, and somebody else has a different view. The challenge as always is to find an outcome that suits everybody.

The obvious and traditional approach is to find a compromise, but the problem with compromises is they’re exactly that. You don’t get what you want, and whoever it is you’re compromising with don’t get what they want either.

It’s a bit like adding two and two to get three. Covey’s principle (not unlike Stuart Diamond’s “Getting More”) is to find a way of making two and two add up to five.

Four step model

Covey proposes four steps to a better outcome that go like this:

  • Establish the potential benefits of openness and agree to talk
  • Agree the best possible outcome for both sides
  • Brainstorm strategies/tactics
  • Jointly implement

Establish the benefits of openness

The first step is to establish if the other party is willing to have an open dialogue to find a better solution to those identified so far. The form of words might go something like “Are you willing to try to find a solution that is better than either of us have come up with yet?”

This is an important principle because it makes clear that you want a solution, and you’re prepared to explore options to find a better solution.

It also makes the discussion optional if the other party wants to be bull-headed about things. (If that’s the case, you’ve learned something important).

Agree the best outcome

The second stage is a form of objective setting. Both sides describe their ideal outcome in its widest sense.

The objective of this phase is to identify all the factors that are in play, not just the obvious ones. There may well be things you discover that aren’t important to you, or are easy for you to give, that are critically important to the other party.

Stuart Diamond refers to this phase as “Expanding the pie” and that’s a nice analogy. You’re both trying to understand each other’s position better to know how to create a better outcome.

An important principle at this stage is to express the objectives in a positive way. Both parties need to be able to say what they do want, not what they don’t want.

Brainstorm strategies/tactics

With the objectives for the best outcome agreed, the next phase is a brainstorming exercise to try to figure out how the two parties objectives might be met.

All the principles of brainstorming apply. It’s fast, it’s not evaluated, it’s a quick fire way of surfacing ideas to think through later.

This phase needs significant trust. You could think your negotiating hand is being given away. But if you’ve managed to get to this stage of the process, you’ve probably already formed a strong view of how much you trust the other party.

Jointly implement

Hopefully the brainstorm will have surfaced a mass of ideas. Those ideas now need grouping and considering. It’s surprising how often the ideas that appear totally crazy are the ones that have substance and can be developed.

The final step of the four step model is to turn the ideas into an action plan that takes both parties forwards – based on a raft of new ideas that make the solutions and outcomes better than a series of uncomfortable compromises.

The book “The 3rd Alternative: Solving Life’s Most Difficult Problems”

I get frustrated with some business books. The trend seems to be to take a pretty simple idea, and then iterate the idea endlessly to fill a book. To some degree, that’s what’s happened here.

Stephen R Covey’s latest book, “The 3rd Alternative: Solving Life’s Most Difficult Problems” is big. And long. And took a while to read. In my opinion, it needs a tighter summary of the remarkably simple, but effective formula it’s propounding.

But despite that criticism, it’s a good read and the principles make a great deal of sense. I especially enjoyed this paragraph:

“It’s not only natural, but essential for people to have different opinions. I’ve said many times over the years that if two people have the same opinion, one of them is unnecessary. A world without difference would be a world of sameness where no progress is possible. Still, instead of valuing these differences, we defend ourselves against them because we believe our identity is under threat. People labouring under the defensive mindset put up walls around themselves to shore up their position instead of moving forward.

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