Adapted from “Metaphorical Negotiation,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter.
Negotiators talk about building agreement, bluffing the opposition, and volleying offers back and forth. According to mediator Thomas Smith, careful attention to such metaphors can reveal deeper meaning beneath the explicit words that people use, notably regarding how they view the negotiation process and their relationship to one another.
Metaphors, after all, help us understand the world and how we function in it. Recognizing how one situation is like another allows us to develop standard frameworks and routines. Metaphors both clarify our vision and distort it, however. For example, seeing negotiation as warfare allows us to borrow strategy and tactics from the battlefield but may blind us to the fact that negotiation is also much like a dance.
In a recent article, Smith analyzed the transcript of an improvised real estate negotiation in which one party spoke of a provision that “would get us both in the game, both working towards the same thing.” The metaphor suggested that the parties act as teammates seeking a common goal. Such appeals may be rhetorical, of course, and mask more sinister motives. Even so, they create the language and images that shape people’s interactions.
According to Gerald Zaltman, professor emeritus at Harvard Business School, some of our most powerful metaphors are visual, not linguistic. We dream in pictures, after all, not in memos and spreadsheets. Zaltman has developed a patented technique for eliciting our unspoken images, though negotiators at the bargaining table must rely on practical judgment to divine the real meanings behind what people are saying. “Metaphor awareness,” as Smith terms it, may not come easily, but even imperfect knowledge “can open additional avenues for exploration of real needs and possibilities for mutual gain.”