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Negotiating in Maine

Negotiating Maine

Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED AP, Criterium Engineers
Published in Condo Media, June 2011

From talking a teenager into emptying the garbage to reaching an understanding on a contractor's completion schedule, negotiation is everywhere. For such an important life skill, one would think it would be a high priority in our education system. But, unless we were on the debate team in school, it is for the most part self-taught. So, as part of our continuing education, let's consider what tools we need to smoothly turn the gears of our world.

Negotiations vs. Communication

We have all known born negotiators. We witness aggressive and argumentative people, but how often have we crossed paths with good negotiators. Experts in the field say the formula for successful negotiating requires: a focus on people instead of the problem; interests instead of positions; options instead of decisions; and criteria instead of results.
 
Negotiations involve people. People are bundled up with emotions, agendas and backgrounds about which we often know little. Yet, when we start negotiations, we often forget this important element of the equation and jump right into trying to force the solution. It is better to communicate before negotiating. Find out the other party's perception, because that is their truth. Even when both parties have the same facts, they often won't come up with the same conclusions. By communicating to the other party your understanding of their position, the differences often become evident and self resolving.
 
But knowing the other party's position is the easiest to learn - it is in the demand letter, the angry phone call or the agenda item at the board meeting. Of more importance is learning the other party's interests, that is, what is motivating the position in the first place, and if there are common interests between the parties. Always ask "why" or "why not."
 
The key to good negotiations is not taking a strong position, but rather making a strong presentation of your interests and demonstrating a  willingness to learn the other party's interests. Here again, the common thread is communication; a misunderstanding of the parties' interests is more detrimental to a satisfactory settlement than a mistake over positions.

Options and Decision Making

One of the corners that inexperienced negotiators find themselves painted into is the assumption there is only one solution to every problem. This kind of thinking is neither creative nor flexible, which are attributes all sueccssful negotiators possess. Developing acceptable options is a powerful tool, as it demonstrates a willingness to accommodate without giving anything up; it shows a willingness to understand the other side of the table, and to make the discussions an easy and mutually satisfying process. 
 
This type of thinking outside of the box generates some counter intuitive ideas. One such idea is that many agreements are based on disagreements. If both parties want exactly the same thing then both parties cannot obtain what they want. A successful negotiation reveals each party's interests and how to satisfy that need. If the interests are met, the positions are irrelevant.
 
When entering into negotiations, the best tool to bring to the table next to being well prepared - is standards for decision making. Like a boxing match, the best fighters do not take all of the blows head on, but divert them and use their opponents' strength against them. 
 
Instead of insisting on being right about a certain point, step aside and let a set of standards or criteria speak for your argument. For example, there was a difference of opinion on the reason a newly installed window was leaking. Rather than arguing with the contractor over his construction methods, simply ask what a nationally recognized authority would recommend. In this case, it might be the American Architectural Manufacturing Association standard practice guidebook that could be the criteria to be recognized. Thus, the issue is not a head-to-head two-party dispute, but now a neutral third party steps in as the arbitrator to a fair resolution.
 
In effect, this method develops a joint venture with the two parties searching for a mutual settlement based on objective criteria or appropriate standards. If the dispute is over construction cost estimates, allow a publication like RS Means or Marshall & Swift to provide guidance. If the argument is a condo governance issue, drag out the state statutes or bylaws to act as the mediator. A good negotiation is not only satisfying to both parties, but preserves a relationship for the future.
 

 
© 2011 CRITERIUM ENGINEERS