Negotiation Tips: Listening Skills for Dealing with Difficult People

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A negotiation daily reader asked: All the negotiation advice I read says that I should listen and ask questions in negotiations. That makes sense, and I mean to. But once the other side starts talking, I often find myself telling them what they left out or why they are wrong. How do I make myself actually start listening more?

Listening is a Critical Negotiation Skill

First, it is correct that listening is a critical negotiation skill. Every negotiation adviser, from Roger Fisher (author of Getting to Yes) to Jim Camp (Start with No) agrees on that. And, of course, as many have found out, easier said than done. Despite their tremendous smarts, both Fisher and Camp struggle to actually focus on listening when someone is disagreeing with them. It takes time and practice for behavior to catch up with one’s goals. On top of that, the temptation to talk instead of listen increases the more educated a negotiator is and the more she knows about the topic at hand. Ironically, smart people are most prone to making the mistake of not listening.

Discover how to collaborate, negotiate, and bargain with even the most combative opponents with, Dealing with Difficult People, a FREE report from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

Negotiation Advice for Improving Your Ability to Listen

Here are three pieces of advice to help you align your behavior with your goal of being a better listener.

Negotiation Tip 1. Prepare.

Driven by anxiety, we tend to prepare for negotiation by writing down what we want to say. This practice sets us up to do lots of telling and little listening. By contrast, if your preparation includes making a list of the other side’s interests, you are likely to discover that you don’t understand them as well as you should. These blanks in your survey of the other party’s interests should be prompts for the questions you will ask when you sit down at the table. If you enter a negotiation with a list of questions rather than a list of arguments, you are more likely to do the smart thing and probe your counterpart’s interests.

Negotiation Tip 2. Build a habit.

Tennis players don’t try out a new backhand in the finals at Wimbledon. Yet often we wait for our most important negotiations to focus on changing our (non-)listening habits. That’s why less-important negotiations are key to developing your skills. They don’t even have to be “negotiations” per se. The next time you find yourself disagreeing with someone—whether your significant other, a friend, or a colleague—see how many questions you can ask in a row without presenting your own point of view. You could even time yourself to see how long you can keep inquiring without giving your opinion. As you’ll find out, it’s harder than it sounds. Set benchmarks for this exercise, and try to ask more questions each time.

Negotiation Tip 3. Use Pavlovian conditioning.

If you get some kind of reward for listening, you’ll do it more. Here’s an exercise to do with someone close to you, such as your partner, parent, or child. Raise an ongoing dispute that you’ve had with him. Tell him that you’re worried you don’t understand his viewpoint well enough and that you want to learn more. Ask questions until you stop learning anything new and then summarize his view. Your goal should be to understand the person’s perspective well enough, and summarize it fairly enough, that he says, “Yes, that’s right!”

Now here’s the hard part: Don’t end by delivering your viewpoint. Instead, simply say, “Thanks for helping me understand.” Then wait and see what he does next.

I’m predicting that this exercise will have a big impact. One student, an aspiring doctor from Egypt, reported that her mother was worried she was becoming too American and consequently wanted her to leave medical school and come home. The daughter tried this assignment and found she was able to accurately summarize her mother’s view: “You worry that I’m abandoning our culture and our religion. You’re concerned that my staying here means I am becoming one of ‘them’ and that I’ll never come home.”
“That’s right!” her mother shouted. Then she said, “OK, you can stay another year.”

Related Dealing with Difficult People Article: Examples of Difficult Situations at Work: Consensus and Negotiated Agreements

Discover how to collaborate, negotiate, and bargain with even the most combative opponents with, Dealing with Difficult People, a FREE report from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

Adapted from “Dear Negotiation Coach: How do I make myself start listening more?” first published in the August 2013 issue of Negotiation Briefings.

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