When we hear the word negotiation, we immediately think of techniques and ploys designed to bring an opposing party into line with our goals and aims for the dialogue. That may be all well and good for a limited, single purpose engagement where the conversation and relationship are not intended to survive beyond the immediate outcome. But, even in some of those limited engagements, the use of some of those techniques and stratagems is ethically questionable. It’s not “nice” to intentionally take advantage of someone else – even if we are sure we will never see them again.

This article is directed to the more common situation that arises in our day-to-day systems engineering workplace among co-workers and teammates who interact daily across extended timeframes and multiple projects. We negotiate among teammates about design approaches and choices. We negotiate requirements changes with stakeholders. We negotiate in many aspects of our daily work and in these situations, we value the continued relationship and dialogue with our colleagues. In those conversations, we are dealing with how we can best negotiate when we care about the relationships among the parties to the negotiation. This is trickier and calls for just as much, or more, negotiating skill and knowledge.


The first necessity for this kind of negotiation is the proper mindset. Whether we are negotiating with our own team or our reporting structure or our customer, we care about that relationship and want to see it continue without damage. That means that we must be careful about valuing the outcome of the negotiation more than the relationship.

Sometimes it is tempting to say that we value the relationship but then choose our strategy and tactics for their effectiveness and expediency. We must sincerely adopt the value structure that protects the relationship while moving toward the goal of solving the problem at hand. Seeing the negotiation as a solution-seeking process rather than a contest of positions is the key here. That means that we are not “opponents” but “partners” in the negotiation. That shift in mindset from a contest to a joint venture is the first critical step to successful negotiation in the workplace (or, for that matter, the family or the social system).

Psychology and Empathy

Once sincerely and intentionally adopted, this mindset can then become the ground of our choices of strategy and tactics. These choices are based in an understanding of basic psychology, ours and that of others. I have previously addressed the psychological principles behind the construction of persuasion (argument/rhetoric). Without going into that in detail, it is important to reiterate an important point: we are driven more by our emotions and cognitive biases than we would like to think.

Anyone who tells you that they are “data driven” is lying – to themselves as much as to others. Our psychology, particularly our emotional processes, plays a large role in our decision-making. As problem-solving negotiators, we use our understanding of that psychology in the framework of our partnering mindset to seek solutions to the problems we and our negotiation counterparts are seeking to solve.

The key to understanding the motivations and emotions of your counterpart is empathy. Empathy is defined as the ability to know and share the thoughts and feelings of another. It is often referred to as “perspective taking.” Psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Eckman have identified three parts to empathy: cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and compassionate empathy. Each one leads to a deeper understanding of, and identification with, another person. While it is not strictly necessary to go to all three levels in the context of negotiation, it is important to develop an understanding of what the other person is thinking and feeling (cognitive empathy).

We may not agree with what they are thinking and suggesting but we must be able to take their perspective for understanding. This is because, while most negotiation begins with opposing or competing “position statements” (“I think A. “ “But, I think B.”), those positions (A and B) are driven by interests. In his insightful book Never Split the Difference, former FBI negotiator Chris Voss says it well, “All negotiations are defined by a network of subterranean desires and needs. Don’t let yourself be fooled by the surface.” Voss, C., Never Split the Difference, Harper Collins (2016) p. 138. Truly successful problem-solving negotiation rests on the ability to discover and surface those underlying interests.


Getting to those interests is the major function of the negotiation. Once they are surfaced for all the parties to consider, a solution set can be constructed that covers as many of them as possible and a decision-making process can be invoked that will likely result in a consensus around a solution. In my next blog I will discuss a particularly powerful example (Full Analytical Criteria Method) of such a process.

Having adopted the proper problem-solving mindset, the negotiator’s task is to get at the underlying interests driving the different positions at work in the negotiation. This depends on high-quality communication among the parties. Skilled negotiators must recognize that the quality of the communication may depend mostly – or even solely – on them.

Eliciting the Interests

The process begins with active listening. I have treated this in detail a three-article series (Pt 1, Pt 2, and Pt 3) so I won’t go into it further except to say that the techniques are designed to focus your conversation on what your counterpart has to say.

The central challenge in uncovering the driving interests at work in shaping your counterpart’s position is extending the conversation enough to allow disclosure of the real foundation of their thinking. This can only happen if your counterpart becomes comfortable enough to share. That means having confidence that your communication is happening in a safe space and that they are being heard. You should signal this by reserving judgment and judgmental comments and asking questions that show you are listening. There is nothing like being (or feeling) judged to make one feel unsafe.

When you ask questions, they should be open-ended so as to encourage additional sharing. Closed-ended questions (questions that require yes-no or other short answers) tend to cut off the flow of information. Questions that ask “how” and “what” are particularly useful for stimulating further comment. Questions like “What would you like to see us accomplish?” or “How can I help you with that?” will generally elicit additional information.

It can also help to mirror what you are hearing from your partner. Voss even recommends simply repeating a few key words from their comments as a stimulus for conversation. Imagine that your counterpart says, “That’s just not enough.” Replying, “Not enough?” is an invitation to elaborate.

When you think you are beginning to understand the interests that are emerging, you can summarize as a way to check your understanding. “Let me see if I am hearing you correctly” followed by a short summary of what you have heard is usually interpreted as an honest attempt to genuinely hear and understand what you are being told.

The bottom line in all of this is a genuine interest in understanding the perspectives of all the parties to negotiation. This interest is in service of an honest attempt at mutually crafting a solution that will be acceptable to all by satisfying as many of the interests as possible. Even when it is not possible to satisfy all of someone’s interests, the feeling that they have been heard will go a long way to their acceptance of the solution that seems best for the group.

That can be critical in conversations with stakeholders or efforts to elicit requirements – anywhere solutions must ultimately be found among parties who disagree. Engineers must make tradeoffs that cannot possibly satisfy everyone involved and this approach can provide a basis for the consensus that allows the effort to move forward.

Moving to Solution Identification

In my next blog we will explore a process by which we can take the interests that are surfaced, create candidate solutions that address them and select a solution that will enjoy consensus within the group.

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