Negotiation was once considered an artpracticed by the naturally gifted. To some extent it still is, but increasingly we in the business world have come to regard negotiation as a science–built on creative approaches to deal making that allow everyone to walk away winners of sorts. Executives have become experts at “getting to yes,” as the now-familiar terminology goes.
Nevertheless, some negotiations stall or, worse, never get off the ground. Why? Our recent research suggests that the answers lie in a dynamic we have come to call the “shadow negotiation”– the complex and subtle game peo- ple play before they get to the table and continue to play after they arrive. The shadow negotiation doesn’t deter- mine the “what” of the discussion, but the “how.” Which interests will hold sway? Will the conversation’s tone be adversarial or cooperative? Whose opinions will be heard? In short, how will bargainers deal with each other?
The shadow negotiation is most obvious when the par- ticipants hold unequal power – say, subordinates asking bosses for more resources or new employees engaging with veterans about well-established company policies. Similarly, managers who, because of their race, age, or gender, are in the minority in their companies may be at a disadvantage in the shadow negotiation. Excluded from important networks, they may not have the personal clout, experience, or organizational standing to influence other parties. Even when the bargainers are peers, a negotiation can be blocked or stalled – undermined by hidden assumptions, unrealistic expectations, or personal his- tories. An unexamined shadow negotiation can lead to silence, not satisfaction.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Our research identified strategic levers – we call them power moves, process moves, and appreciative moves – that executives can use to guide the shadow negotiation. In situations in which the other person sees no compelling need to negotiate, power moves can help bring him or her to the table. When the dynamics of decision making threaten to overpower a negotiator’s voice, process moves can reshape the nego- tiation’s structure. And when talks stall because the other party feels pushed or misunderstandings cloud the real issues, appreciative moves can alter the tone or atmo- sphere so that a more collaborative exchange is possible. These strategic moves don’t guarantee that bargainers will walk away winners, but they help to get stalled negotiations out of the dark of unspoken power plays and into the light of true dialogue.