From time to time negotiators are confronted with a negotiation that is deeply rooted in conflict. The cause of the conflict could be from old wounds from a battle long ago, it could be a struggle for power, or it could be a bias or prejudgment by one or more parties. Regardless, the conflict is there and needs to be resolved before the negotiation can go forward.
If the conflict is to be resolved and if an effort is going to be made to work out a solution or bargain, you must first make an assessment of the relationship. A typical conflict situation is accompanied by little or no trust between the parties involved. Given that predicament, you generally have two choices: 1) acknowledge that trust is an issue and try to fix it; 2) acknowledge it is an issue and carry forward as best you can. Obviously, the first scenario is best but realistically trust is earned and takes time to develop.
Building trust and resolving conflict is a multi-layered process and hard to do. We all know that. Without over simplifying it, here is a step by step look at the process of building trust and resolving conflict so that you can begin a negotiation.
Identify the problem or problems that are stalling the negotiation.This sounds simple, but it requires incredible honesty and self disclosure which most business people are not experienced at in a working environment. In fact, business people are skilled at avoiding this type of honesty; if they cannot avoid it, they often will just lie. Yet, when people tell the truth they generally feel better and feel a sense of emancipation. They feel free.
Establish the rules of engagement.This means that all parties must agree on the time, place, and duration of the meeting along with the expectations on how everyone will behave. For example, no screaming allowed is a reasonable rule. This process will set the tone and is way to get all parties talking.
Set realistic goals for the meeting. Why are you meeting? What do you hope to accomplish as a minimum expectation? Let each party speak their thoughts since this is a shared exercise. Once again this is a healthy way to get things going. Remember to set realistic goals; even baby steps are good.
Look backward. A good place to start the more serious dialog is to look backward and describe what has worked before and what is good about the relationship between the parties. The goal here is to find a common happy place on which to build trust. Let all parties share an example of what worked well before. OK, dig a little. There must be something.
Be Brave. This process requires self-disclosure and it may mean taking responsibility for mistakes that you have made; this could trigger emotion from the other party as they express how your behavior impacts them. This emotion is healthy and normal; sit back and let them express it. Take it in. In fact, when you are in a conflicted relationship, the best way to build trust is to step forward and admit that you are part of the problem and that you are truly sorry. Describe how you are going to try to make things better. Check your body language and that of the other party. You will be amazed how they will look physically relieved; you are both likely to give a big sigh of relief. Many times this release of the stress allows for a better exchange of ideas along with increased candor. Typically the other parties will also step forward and take responsibility for the relationship. If this mutual disclosure happens, you are on the way to building trust.
If this exercise works, you can begin the negotiation. If it does not, stop the meeting and agree to try later when both parties have had some time to think about things. Often the second meeting is much easier and becomes a watershed event. If you are unsuccessful at the second meeting, you may need to bring in a trusted third party to mediate the conflict.
John Bradley Jackson
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