If you’ve ever reached a stalemate in a negotiation — say with a boss over a deferred promotion, or a family member over responsibilities — you know it’s not easy to find a way out. But walking away would too costly to your career, your time commitment, or possibly, your relationship. It’s time to find a different approach. Fortunately there’s Negotiating the Impossible: How to Break Deadlocks and Resolve Ugly Conflicts (Without Money or Muscle), a new book by Harvard professor and expert negotiator Deepak Malhotra. It’s a guide to defusing even the most entrenched and tense conflicts, so that both sides can declare a victory.
Professor Malhotra shows just how effective his strategies are by framing them in real life. History, it turns out, it filled with compelling examples, including dramatic boardroom showdowns in well-known corporations, last-minute resolutions to bitter NFL and NHL walk-outs, and even the drafting of the U.S. Constitution.
As he writes, we can draw on three dominant principles for arriving at a mutually satisfying agreement — and they involve (as the title says) neither money nor muscle. Rather, our power lies in controlling how the issue is framed, setting ground rules for the negotiation process, and using empathy to understand the other party’s true interests.
Empathy was the key to averting an international catastrophe during the Cuban Missile crisis, as Professor Malhotra points out. President Kennedy was able to determine the rationale behind Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s stationing missiles in Cuba and directly address that rationale when proposing solutions. Had he not been able to discern Khrushchev’s point of view, our world would be a very different place today.
Many of the tactics outlined in this book involve bringing unwilling parties to the table — and then, keeping them there. One side may feel it already has the upper hand, so why bother with what the other side has to say? Or one side may feel like its needs are never going to be understood, so why even try to discuss it? The Northern Ireland peace agreement involved nearly a half-century of working through long festering political and religious wounds: finally getting past that stalemate required giving up the idea of the other side as adversary. Professor Malhotra makes a critical distinction here, however: you’re not sympathizing with the other side, but rather, you’re working to imagine the best-case scenario, and what it would take from both sides to get there.
The underlying message of Negotiating the Impossible is that no matter how high the stakes or protracted the dispute, you can get to the other side. Whether brokering international accords or an agreement with a child, the object of negotiation is to engage with other human beings in a way that leads to better understandings and agreements. The tools and methods Professor Malhotra offers may well be the answer.
To learn more about Professor Malhotra and his new book click here.