Adapted from “Speaking the Same Language,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter.
Negotiators can find themselves talking past each other for hours, even days. Then suddenly something happens–a breakthrough. The parties begin conversing on a different plane, one that reveals solutions to problems that had seemed intractable.
Professor Linda Putnam, a communications scholar at Texas A&M University, says that these turning points aren’t accidents. Her careful analysis of negotiation transcripts shows how these shifts often reflect a change in the parties’ language that gives them an entirely new perspective on the process.
If negotiators have been going around in circles trying to solve a specific problem, they find agreement by attacking it at a more general level. If they are stalemated on an abstract matter of principle, they shift their focus to concrete solutions that aren’t as value-laden. Instead of trying to make an awkward exception to the rule for a deserving individual, they address the policy itself. Such moves allow the parties to explore new territory, unburdened by the blaming, claiming, and flaming that may have contaminated their prior discourse.
Given sufficient time, any negotiator may blunder onto a more productive plane of communication. Putnam maintains, however, that true “masters” of the process are alert to opportunities to make these shifts happen sooner, not later. They know from experience when it’s time to move on, and they’re willing to try another perspective even before fully understanding what will be revealed. These experts are also skilled at connecting with their counterparts and building trust. After all, you can’t move to a new conversational plane on your own. “The game player works within the system of rules,” Putnam observes. “Game masters understand and recognize the rules but also change them or even switch the game entirely.”