Adapted from “The Case of the Broken Speakers,” first published in the July 2011 issue of Negotiation.
“Indirect confrontation” may be a useful way of helping a counterpart save face, writes professor Jeanne Brett of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in an August 2010 article in the journal Negotiation and Conflict Management Research.
As opposed to directly making a claim and specifying what you expect in response from the other party, indirect confrontation entails allowing him to infer what has gone wrong and how he should respond.
As an example, Brett relates the story of a former MBA student of hers who was studying in Bangkok.
The American student bought some speakers for her iPod at a small shop in a large electronics mall, only to find they didn’t work. H
er friends warned her that there was no way the seller would exchange the speakers because of the mall’s informal rule, “Buyer beware.”
Armed with information on conflict learned in a negotiation class, the student returned to the shop, told the seller that she was having trouble setting up the speakers, and asked for his help. He tried them out using a display iPod and, upon discovering for himself that they didn’t work, told the student there was something wrong with them and gave her another set in exchange.
Rather than telling the seller directly that he had sold her a faulty product—an accusation that could have caused him to lose face in his community—the student “let him figure out the problem himself,” as she explained to Brett.
Research suggests that conflicts negotiated indirectly are more likely to reach agreement than conflicts confronted directly, according to Brett.
By asking a question, telling a story, or sharing an experience, you can engage your counterpart in helping you find a solution while reducing the odds that he will lose face.