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Updated: Nov 9, 2023

By Felix Miller

Negotiation Expert, Rational Games, Inc.

“Are we looking at the same problem?”

A fellow negotiator asked his partner/opponent across the table at this year’s edition of ‘The Negotiation Challenge (TNC)’ in Rome last week.

Having participated in negotiation tournaments as a student, a professional & now as a judge myself, I’m constantly amazed by the magical atmosphere when people from all over the world come together to learn, practice & apply this important skill – in my view, ‘the skill of life’ as #negotiation shows us to lead people from ‘no’ to ‘yes’, regardless the context. Let's explore the turning point.

The above question seems simple & is yet so powerful. Why?

Because it allows both or all negotiation partners to take a moment to step back, align & co-define a shared problem that eventually will be solved by partners rather than opponents. This is a critical moment in solving impasses & getting to Yes together.  The Harvard People call it The Creative Question.

Usually offered about halfway through the negotiation, after both sides have done a thorough job of plumbing the “icebergs” of the other with smart questions, genuine empathy and attention to body language, this is the point when at least one of the sides needs to find that “same problem”.  Active listening helps here, with a cogent summary of what I think your interests are (“is that right?”) followed by mine, with no fear of naming the conflict as it exists.  Now “what can we do together to make this happen”?

The negotiators have “tilted” or “ turned” from being implacable opponents to trusting partners in search of a joint solution.  The simple reason:  When done properly, each side of the table feels understood, probably the deepest human need.  Now we can relax, trust and think together creatively.

Of course, the success of this depends on:

  1. Genuine curiosity in discovering and respecting the interests of the Other in what went before

  2. Skillful rhetoric: smart questions, accurate summaries, deep empathy

  3. A “safe space” to co-create from here (often done with Ground Rules).

And then the magic happens, not only at negotiation competitions. And that is stimulating indeed.

Comments welcome!


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