Some years ago, Barbra Streisand granted a one-hour interview with Larry King on CNN, just after her highly successful concert tour on the US East Coast. Keen to glean as much as he could from this all-too-rare journalistic opportunity, Larry applied all of his formidable rhetorical skills to the conversation, gamely attempting to draw his guest out to finally reveal the personal. He focused especially on her rumored stage fright, finally summarizing her somewhat terse responses to his various questions with a highly empathetic “I can see how you might suffer from stage fright. Believe it or not, so do I”. Barbra looked at him quizzically over her glasses and said dryly: “Really, Larry? That’s not too good”… With one deft stroke, the spotlight was back on her interlocutor.
I worry sometimes, that all the training that we do in empathy, listening, clever questioning, reframing and the like does our seminar participants a disservice. For too much awareness and excessively trained rhetoric can easily lead into rhetorical manipulation or at the very least feigned and ineffective questioning techniques. Even when we put ourselves into inquiry mode in negotiations, do we genuinely care about the answers to our questions?
The key here is authenticity. According to Wikipedia (always the first authority on these things), the requirement is to build the negotiator’s legitimacy “through honest relationships with negotiation partners whose input we truly value and where the interaction is mutually built on an ethical foundation.” This means genuinely wanting what is driving behavior and really exploring the sometimes hidden interests of the other side, not just to get a better deal but simply because we care about the relationship.
Luckily, there is also good news here. Firstly, people, in my experience, are smarter than we think. Staged empathy and manipulative questioning will usually collapse of their own weight. And secondly, at least being conscious that we are in danger of sliding into inauthentic negotiation also offers the first step in arresting that trend. Awareness can be a boon as well as a danger.
In the end, all of this goes well beyond the tactics of successful negotiation, whether win-win or not. It is about a way of living. For it is the values of curiosity, respect and what the mindfulness people call “generous listening” that truly make for a good life, not only at the negotiation table.