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The real art of the deal

Professor Shai Dubey, Law’94, explains why negotiation isn’t the same as bargaining and why it’s a skill we can all use
Robert Gerlsbeck
The real art of the deal

We may not realize it, but we’re negotiating every day. It could be in the boardroom with colleagues and customers or in the kitchen with family. To many, it’s a zero-sum game. A winner and a loser. But Shai Dubey is more optimistic. A lawyer and associate professor who teaches negotiation to students at Smith and Queen’s Law (and to professionals via Queen’s Executive Education), Dubey believes that negotiation knowledge can improve our relationships, professionally and otherwise. In conversation with managing editor Robert Gerlsbeck, he explains why, and what the best negotiators get right.

Robert Gerlsbeck: How do you define a negotiation that has worked?

Shai Dubey: In my experience, a successful negotiation is when the parties leave the table getting what they both wanted. They have a strong relationship and they’re looking forward to working more with each other.

What’s a common mistake people make around the table?

We tend to go into a negotiation with some fear because there’s an asymmetry of information. We don’t know what the other side wants and then we make assumptions as to what they want. We hear what we want to hear rather than listening to what they are really looking for. Then we try to persuade them based on how we see the world, not how they see the world.

So does good negotiating start with listening?

Yes. We feel that to persuade somebody, we need to talk more. All the research shows that the best negotiators, the best persuaders, listen 63 per cent of the time. When you’re listening, when you’re actually hearing what the other person is saying, you have to ask followup and clarification questions — and that allows you to understand the other person. As a negotiator, you should always be asking questions because without questions you never know what the other party wants. The best negotiator is somebody who listens, who has empathy and who understands relationships are important.

What role does preparation play?

It is probably the most critical thing. If you go into a negotiation without properly preparing first, you’re not going to do well at all. So much information can be flying at you during a negotiation, and you don’t know what the other side is going to bring to the table. Think about the times when you have been under stress and had information overload. That’s the situation you will find yourself in.

Preparation does several things: One, you will know what it is you want. Two, you can prepare for what the other side might want. But more importantly, it gets you to start asking questions for the information you don’t know. So rather than having to think on the fly under pressure, you have a list of questions ready to ask and then you can build on that.

Going back and forth with someone else can be emotional. Should we strive to eliminate our emotions entirely?

We like to think that we can stay rational when we’re dealing with other people. But we are all human beings. Before you show up to a negotiation, you may have had a disagreement with your spouse, your child might be sick, you might have got into a traffic jam or maybe your boss told you to do something that you didn’t want to do. Maybe somebody on the other side of the table makes a comment that triggers something in you. When that happens, human psychology and physiology cause our thinking brain to shut down and we go to our primitive brain. We’re no longer rational at that point.

Now, we can’t get rid of our emotions. But we can try to understand what our triggers are — because we all have them. If we can recognize when somebody says something that triggers us, we will know to take a deep breath and step back. And some people are very good at poking and finding weaknesses in others. But if you react and let your emotions get away from you, in my experience you’ve probably lost that negotiation.

What strategies can turn a confrontational negotiation into a collaborative one?

When somebody is confrontational, first of all, you have to realize there’s probably something else going on. It could be their emotions, it could be their style, it could be out of fear. But remember: we can choose how we react. If we respond by attacking back, then we’re both going to be in attack mode, and that’s probably not going to be very constructive.

Usually, when somebody is confrontational, they’re afraid of something or they have some pressure on them. The best thing you can do, again, is ask questions and get them to talk. What happens when people talk is they often walk themselves out of the confrontation. Then you can really understand the issue that’s driving their behaviour and address it. People want to be heard, not just listened to, but really heard. If you can be empathetic, you’ve changed the whole game.

Isn’t negotiating often simply about trying to get the best deal for my side?

Most people view negotiation as pure bargaining, a fixed pie bias where each party looks to get the biggest piece of the pie. This type of negotiation is appropriate in certain circumstances when money is the only issue. But I would say that in 95 per cent of cases, both in our personal lives and in our business lives, we don’t need to bargain because the parties often do not want the same thing. Money is really a scoring system and not always the true measure of what people need. If we step back and really understand what each party wants, then we can build something that is collaborative and allows everybody to have their interests met.

How important is it for an organization’s managers to be skilled negotiators?

I would say that negotiating isn’t just an important skill for managers. It’s an important skill for everyone. Yes, it’s useful from a business standpoint, but if you have a spouse, a partner, kids, friends and you have a place of work, you are negotiating every single day. What if you can use your negotiation skills to really empathize with the people you deal with in your daily life and make your relationships better?

The world is more confrontational today. It’s more divided. And yet, when we think about it, we all want the same things: we want a better life for ourselves and for our families; we want to be successful. When we understand negotiations, we start to see how we can bring people together, to start talking rather than attacking and how we can build a better world rather than ripping it apart.