Q&A with Daniel Shapiro on Negotiating the Nonnegotiable

By Desda Moss May 4, 2016
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Dan_Shapiro.jpgConflict is a fact of life. Especially, it seems, in the workplace. (Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan, anyone?). Daniel Shapiro, Ph. D., author of Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts (Viking, 2016), wants to help us to chart a new path with our co-workers by questioning what causes conflict, why we compulsively get mired in the same disagreements, and why we rarely find resolution.

Shapiro, founder and director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program and an associate professor in psychology at Harvard Medical School/McLean Hospital, has spent twenty 20 years unraveling the forces that contribute to human conflict. He maintains that rational approaches to conflict resolution seldom work because most of the time they hinge on two non-rational factors: our emotions and our identities.

Conflicts become emotionally charged, he writes, when our identity is threatened—triggering a hidden set of emotional forces that sabotage cooperation.

Shapiro offers an approach that can lead us to break free of these forces and reconcile even the most strained relationships.

He recently answered questions from HR Magazine about his book.

Why are autonomy and affiliation so important in the workplace and how do they contribute to conflict?

It’s a human instinct to feel emotionally connected to others (affiliation). We also want to feel free to make decisions without imposition from others (autonomy). These two things can come into conflict with each other. Think about how hard it is for two companies to merge: They need to build a sense of affiliation as “one” company,; but they also need to make sure people don’t feel like they’ve lost “turf” through the process. A simple way to manage these two concerns is to remember four letters: ACBD.  Always Consult Before Deciding. Before you make a decision that matters to someone else in your company, consult them. You can learn from their thinking, they now feel included, and you still have power over the decision.

What’s the best way to prepare for negotiating an important business deal?

I suggest doing three things:

Clarify your interests … and theirs.  Look beneath your stated position to better understand why you are negotiating.   If you are negotiating a sales contract, what are your interests?   To make money?   To look good to your boss?   To build a relationship that promotes long-term sales?

Think creatively about options for mutual gains.   Might there be some ways to meet your interests, and theirs, at the same time?

Strengthen your walkaway alternative.   If the negotiation fails, what will you do?   Make a solid plan now.   You will be much stronger in the negotiation.

How should managers approach their employees during a disagreement?

We usually defend our perspective and close our ears to theirs. But this only escalates the situation. A better approach is to use two powerful tools:

Ask open-ended questions. Be curious about the employee’s perspective. Ask, “What is the situation like for you?   Why are you upset?”

Listen.  Rather than defending your position, listen to understand someone else’s. Once they feel heard, they will be more open to hear your perspective.

We experience a lot of emotionally-charged conflicts at work and at home that often involve taboos. What are some quick strategies to pick up on taboos?

Imagine you are talking with a close set of friends about the unwritten rules of how to act in your office or family. What rules are the most frustrating to you? They are likely to be taboos. Example: Despite “talk” about gender equality, there still is the feeling that one gender is superior to the other. Or it may be taboo to talk about people’s animosity toward each other in the company.

Invite others to discuss taboo issues with you. Open yourself up to self-criticism. Say, “If I say or do something offensive, please let me know.” And create a safe environment for others to share taboo issues with you. For example, I know the president of a company who had a star employee … who smelled terrible. Other employees complained. What should he do? It’s taboo to talk about basic body care. But he did. He privately met with the star employee, explained the situation. She understood, and the situation was resolved.

Shapiro has launched successful conflict resolution initiatives in the Middle East, Europe, and East Asia, and for three years chaired the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Conflict Resolution. 

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