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How to Show Up in Difficult Conversations, Podcast Excerpts  

Read a few of our favorite excerpts from the interview:

Ed: Tell me, how did negotiation come to be your expertise? 

Rachel: In graduate school, I came in with the idea that I was going to build on my background of human interaction design (how humans interact with systems, products, and technology) and thought I was going to carry that forward and work on really ‘technical’ technology. 

In graduate school, what I found was we were looking for technology to solve a lot of problems. And it can! But, a lot of times, the humans in the system actually have a lot of control over how effective new solutions are. So I started getting interested in this idea: What is the role of the human in how we are innovating and trying to improve the world? 

That brought me to this fundamental breakdown of: When we don’t know how to talk to each other, when we don’t know how to learn about a problem and explore it through research backed methods….. you can create all the amazing technology, systems, and processes you want, but the humans will break them.

Ed: When is it so important and beneficial to be a good negotiator? 

Rachel: When you need to get more of something or get something done. When you need more time, or resources, you need someone to help you watch your kids, or you need a better connection with your neighbor. Or, you’re just trying to get things done – you have a project team that you’re leading or a local organization you work on and you’re trying to unblock a project there. If you are going to be married, have children, have neighbors, a roommate or a partner. Those are all relationships where there is opportunity to create more value. 

If we are not intentional about [creating value in our relationships], we will default to our natural human defaults which is: ‘I’m very concerned about what I have and what I need – and I’m a lot less likely to learn more about what you have and you need.’ 

Which means we’ll miss opportunities to help each other. 

Ed: So essentially, if you are a human moving in the world, you need negotiation skills. 

Rachel: That’s right.


Ed: If we want to start learning how to negotiate, what’s some of the foundational key principles that we need to learn?

Rachel: We teach often through Roger Fischer’s 7 Elements… and there’s really a couple [components] that if we can start holding in our minds, will already help us start having conversations with people about what we want and need. 

The first is something called interests. We have something we ask for – what we call our ‘position’. ‘I want a pay raise of 10%’. That’s the demand you’re making. Your interests are the things motivating you to choose that position – maybe proof that you’re growing within the organization, you’ve been there for a long time and you want to know that you are appreciated. 

Those interests (the more feelings-based, motivations-based things) are what cause us to choose the positions we take. There’s a lot more data in those interests. There’s a lot more that someone can learn about us versus our demand of 10% …. If we can identify our interests and figure out how to strategically share them, and if we can figure out what someone else’s interests are – what is motivating them to choose that position? – then we can have a really honest conversation about what is possible in order to meet those interests. 

If we demand something, we’re a lot more likely to have a ‘no-agreement’ – where we try to negotiate and we just don’t figure out how to solve it. When interests are on the table, you get a lot more data to work with. You can get really creative about how to meet interests on both sides, without sacrificing either parties’ outcome. 

If you can start talking one level down – at the level of things that actually motivate us – it’s way more likely you will find a solution.

Ed: One of the hardest things is actually figuring out what we want or what to get out of a negotiation. Do you have any tips for understanding what we want? 

Rachel: What helps me know what I want is to come up with an idea and see how I like it. Maybe I’m thinking about a negotiation with my sister – say I want to change the way we relate to each other. I think to myself: What if we did this other thing? Would that help me, would I like that? Try it on mentally. Ok – that’s one option. Let’s come up with a different option, and see if I like that better. 

Ed: So it requires a lot of thought. 

Rachel: The number one thing people can do to get better outcomes in negotiation is to prepare. What happens all the time is you go into a negotiation and you realize you’re not sure what you want, or you don’t have that standard of fairness, or you haven’t thought about ‘what could I do if this didn’t work out. That means that default to positional bargaining: ‘here’s my demand’. Or we agree to something that is not good for us because we don’t have an alternative to protect us. 

If you aren’t prepared, get practiced at asking for more time. If someone wants to jump into something, make it okay to say ‘that’s a really important question and I really want to talk about that – I’m wondering if we can come back to this tomorrow or later when I’ve had a chance to get my thoughts in order?” Practice that line with someone you trust, so you have it to reach for when your boss or a parent or someone you have conflict with approaches you. 

Ed: If there were one thing you’d leave us with that we should keep in mind? 

Rachel: To recognize that underneath the ‘demands’, there is a motivation. On both our side, on an organization’s side, on our families’ side, on another person’s side – if you can start talking one level down – at the level of things that actually motivate us – it’s way more likely you will find a solution. 

And if I can throw in one more: recognize that negotiations don’t happen in a single conversation. They happen over time. They happen in relationships. Sometimes you don’t win. But, if you are showing up in a way that’s focused on listening to the other side, understanding their interests, being willing to look at creative ways to come up with a solution, and keeping in mind those emotional interests. Even if you don’t win every time, you are going to win in your relationships. […] And you will win more over time.

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