Negotiating the Most Sensitive Topics of All

By on / Negotiation Skills

In negotiation, some topics seem off-limits: difficult to bring up and perhaps impossible to resolve. Consider the following anecdotes:

– In the process of negotiating an acquisition that would include key personnel, members of the buyer’s team are concerned about rumors that a top executive from the target firm has a serious drinking problem that is impairing his performance. However, they are reluctant to raise the delicate issue with their counterparts in the target firm.

– While teaching a workshop in a Middle Eastern country, an American professor sensed rising tension in the room. Later, he learned that he offended his foreign counterparts by exposing the sole of his shoe to those present, including a member of the royal family – a violation of a cultural prohibition.

– Two department heads, Deb and Lina, have been planning a long-term project that their teams will work on jointly. Over lunch, Deb tells a joke that mocks a politician whom Lina supports. Lina is offended but doesn’t speak up for fear of straining their work relationship.

In each anecdote, a taboo lurks under the surface or has risen to the surface of a negotiation. Taboos are social prohibitions – actions, feelings, or thoughts that a particular community deems unacceptable, writes Daniel Shapiro, founder and director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program, in his new book, Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts (Viking, 2016).

Originally a word (tabu) used by Pacific Islanders to refer to all that is forbidden, the term taboo entered the English parlance in the 1700s via British explorer James Cook. Taboo issues can range from a long-standing family grudge to a violation of cultural norms to an unspeakable harm. Whatever they encompass, taboos are delicate issues that, if left unaddressed, can sour negotiations and hinder the resolution of conflicts. After all, as Shapiro writes, “How do you solve a conflict you cannot discuss?”

Here we present Shapiro’s advice on how to resolve conflicts arising from taboos.

What is a taboo?

Every taboo has three components, according to Shapiro:

1. A prohibition.

A taboo specifies particular feelings, thoughts, or actions as being off-limits within a community, “creating a boundary between what is acceptable and what is forbidden,” writes Shapiro. For example, curse words may be taboo during a formal negotiation, but more acceptable during an office happy hour.

2. A punishment for breaking the prohibition.

Every taboo has a punishment for violation. A negotiator who asks whether a prominent member of the target firm has a drinking problem – a taboo topic – risking damaging and even ending the negotiation.

3. Protective significance.

Taboos serves as unwritten social rules that protect us from saying or doing something that offends community values. for example, the common taboo in many workplaces against discussing politics or religion can help prevent divisive conflict from arising.

Why taboos lead to conflict

Taboos serve a useful function in society, but they can also lead to conflict and stress in negotiation and other realms for at least three reasons, writes Shapiro in Negotiating the Nonnegotiable:

1. We are unaware of the taboo.

Sometimes we inadvertently offend someone by violating a taboo due to lack of awareness. It was Shapiro himself, for example, who caused a stir by unintentionally exposing the sole of his shoe to his workshop participants in the Middle East.

2. We fear discussing the taboo.

“Taboos make difficult conversations even more difficult,” writes Shapiro. “To break a taboo can feel frightening – but to avoid breaking it keeps you mired in conflict.” In families, long-buried painful memories can prolong hurt feelings and tension, for example. Because family members can be harshly punished for raising such issues, they tend to tiptoe around them instead of confronting them.

3. We have no framework.

Unlike laws, taboos tend to be unwritten, and they vary widely from one context to the next. A person might work for one organization where heated political debates are the norm and another where political talk is implicitly forbidden, for example. Because we are likely to lack a systematic framework for dealing with taboo issues, we may be confused about whether to accept, address, or break them.

A 3-step process for navigating taboos

Sweeping taboos under the rug generally only prolongs conflict. In Negotiating the Nonnegotiable, Shapiro recommends three steps that can help us bring taboos to the surface of our minds and our negotiations.

Step 1: Increase you awareness of the taboos.

Because taboos protect important parts of our identities, people often react strongly when taboos they hold dear are violated. Consequently, it is important to try to prepare for the taboos you may encounter in your negotiations and think about how to cope with them, advises Shapiro. In particular, consider the unwritten rules, off-limit topics, and prohibited emotions (such as anger or sadness) that may govern how others expect you to behave.

In particular, be aware of taboos on personal expression, taboos on blasphemy, and taboos on association, advises Shapiro. Taboos on personal expression might prohibit you from discussing topics that a community considers sensitive, such as your income or your political or your religious beliefs. Taboos on blasphemy prohibit signs of disrespect to revered possessions, beliefs, and people. For example, it might be taboo to speak negatively about a company’s founder within its walls. Taboos on association prohibit us from associating with any person, place, or thing that is considered morally polluted. After basketball star Dennis Rodman befriended North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, he was widely condemned in the West, writes Shapiro.

In addition to recognizing taboos issues that we’re in danger of violating, we also need to become aware of taboos that may constrain our counterpart’s behavior. For example, a cultural taboo might prevent an indigenous tribe from selling land it deems sacred. And a deeply religious individual might resist attending events where alcohol is being served.

Step 2: Establish a safe zone.

The next step in resolving emotionally charged conflicts involves moving “sensitive topics from taboo territory to a safe zone” where they can be “examined without fear of punishment or moral compromise,” writes Shapiro in Negotiating the Nonnegotiable.

To do so, begin identifying your reason for discussing the taboo: Do you want to air deeply rooted grievances, clarify points of contention, or share your pain? You might also discuss with your counterpart which issues are off-limits and which you can broach respectfully. For example, recall the acquiring firm that is concerned a high-ranking executive at the target firm is impaired by alcohol addiction. Privately, one member of the acquirer’s team might raise the subject with a member of the target’s team to find out if they can discuss it one-on-one. It’s also important to discuss confidentiality, according to Shapiro, determining exactly who can be privy to your conversation and who cannot.

Next, explore the taboo issues without making binding commitments about how to deal with them, Shapiro recommends. This stipulation allows you to discuss sensitive taboos without fear of violating them. During the 2015 Iran nuclear talks in Lausanne, Switzerland, for example, U.S. and Iranian negotiators found a way to brainstorm potentially controversial proposals without attracting negative attention from outsiders: They wrote on a white board that could be easily erased, according to The New York Times.

Finally, because the prospect of potentially breaking a taboo can trigger the guilt and shame, give yourself the opportunity to reaffirm your values and clear your conscience, and encourage the other party to do the same.

Step 3: Make an action plan.

The final step in dealing with a conflict-triggering taboo is to mutually decide whether to accept the taboo, chisel away at it slowly, or tear it down quickly, Shapiro writes in Negotiating the Nonnegotiable.

Returning of our acquisition hypothetical, suppose a negotiator for the target firm is angered when a negotiator from the buyer’s team broaches the topic of the executive’s possible alcohol problem and declares it to be completely off-limits. The representative from the target might even deny that such a problem exists. If so, the buyer’s team must decide whether to accept that the topic is taboo and move on or whether it remains a serious impediment to negotiation.

Alternatively, both parties may see value in loosening the taboo but be fearful of doing so in one fell swoop. Suppose that the seller’s team in our example acknowledged the executive’s drinking problem (with the assurance of confidentiality) but insisted the issue could not be taken up with the executive himself. The teams might negotiate a less critical role for the executive that would allow him to save face; they also agree to give employees of the merged company better access to substance abuse treatment.

What if one or both parties decides it’s time to tear down the taboo completely? For instance, upon learning that rumors about one of their top executives are generating negative attention, members of the target firm might decide to approach him directly with the goal of getting him help. Similarly, an indigenous tribe might decide to break its taboo against selling land in order to use the profits from the sale to educate its younger generation about the tribe’s history and customs.

When deciding whether to accept, chisel away at, or tear down a taboo, examine who would benefit from these various actions and why, and factor in the costs involved. This type of cost benefit analysis may not reveal a clear path forward but can help you better identify key interests and open the door to productive conversation.

Creating New Taboos

Although we usually think of taboos as putting up roadblocks to negotiation, they can also be constructive, helping to inhibit destructive behavior and conflict.

In Negotiating the Nonnegotiable, Daniel Shapiro describes his conversation with a couple in which the husband was a staunch Republican and the wife a die-hard Democrat. Shapiro asked them how they got along day to day. The wife explained that they had a simple policy: “Every Tuesday night we talk politics. The rest of the week, the subject is taboo.”

When negotiating such formal limits on communication and behavior, be sure to specify punishment for noncompliance – such as facing the wrath of one’s spouse for jeopardizing domestic harmony.

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