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  Mutually assured construction: Negotiating cooperatively to rebuild after the crisis 

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As companies negotiate with their suppliers, and employees negotiate with their employers, it's worth remembering that the other side is as hurt by the coronavirus crisis as we are, making it all the more important to seek mutually beneficial outcomes. So says Kandarp Mehta, a senior lecturer of Entrepreneurship at IESE where he leads workshops on negotiation as part of the Negotiation Teaching Unit.

Citing successful negotiations in the wake of a devastating earthquake in his native country of India, Mehta recalls that getting all parties to prioritize the rebuilding of a school before other infrastructure made a big difference. Why? Because all could recognize that getting things back to normal for the children would go farther toward boosting morale and casting hope -- two essential ingredients for negotiating your way out of a crisis, he says.

"We're living through what is probably the biggest unprecedented event of our lifetimes," says Mehta. "To get out of this crisis, we will need everyone to help us, and so we will need to be as helpful to others as possible."

A feature of this crisis that makes it unprecedented is that the lockdowns to halt the spread of COVID-19 require all negotiations to be conducted online. How does one "shake hands on a deal" when that action is expressly prohibited?

Here, Mehta shares his top tips, which are also contained in his technical note, "Negotiation and Digitalization: Keys for Closing Agreements Successfully in the Digital Age," co-authored with Guido Stein and Alberto Barrachina. (The note is available by request from

Read also: "Are You Ready for Online Negotiations?"

Be well prepared. This first step should go without saying but it's surprising how many people go into a negotiation unprepared. Or they think they are prepared but they misunderstand what it means to "be prepared." They focus on what they want but they haven't spent any time thinking about what the other side wants.

"This is often the case in salary negotiations," says Mehta. "We go in knowing what the bare minimum is that we will accept, but we haven't thought about what the other side is prepared to give. It's so important to spend your time investigating the potential of the other side. What are their interests? What do they want to achieve? What are their expectations? Then, you can begin to prioritize your objectives in light of those of the other side, and build bridges of mutual understanding, rather than starting from an adversarial position."

Doing your homework is a good way of guarding against making an "attribution error" -- assuming the other party has negative intentions -- which is easier to make when interactions are online and you don't have the benefit of nonverbal cues or other visual information if the interaction is conducted without video.

Stay in control. This refers not only to the negotiation process but to emotional states. "You lose control of a negotiation when you lose control of emotions -- yours and those of the other side." Keep your ego in check and avoid making self-centered demands. Recognizing other people's losses due to the coronavirus is a way of keeping the conversation compassionate rather than combative. If you're concerned that the other side isn't being upfront with you, keep asking more questions, focus on the facts and stick to the information before you; don't start making accusations.

Focus on building relationships. "Conflicts only become intractable when we stop focusing on the relationship, when we stop trying to win the trust of the other side." As such, "be collaborative," says Mehta, pointing to the example of a mediator whose job is to always look for the common ground. "Develop a mediator mindset," which he summarizes as: "Ask questions. Be an active listener. And paraphrase."

This latter point is especially useful in online negotiations, where it becomes even more important to be brief and concise. "In email exchanges, for instance, we see people become a lot more rational, more focused on making rational arguments, more data centric." But that can result in "confrontation bias," where we lose some of the relational, human touch, reinforcing feelings of remoteness and anonymity, which can provoke greater confrontation and we may say or do things that we normally wouldn't in person.

Mehta recommends using videoconferences "to send trust signals" and using emails to follow up on things discussed during the videoconference. Paraphrasing what was discussed, apart from the practical aspect of verifying things in writing, serves to show you're interested in the other side, that you've genuinely listened to their points of view and are acknowledging them.

Continue the conversation.
This follows on from the previous point: "Conversation is the currency in a crisis," says Mehta. So, beware of issuing threats and ultimatums, because you may end up having to follow through on them. An open door is always better than a burned bridge.

As vital as it is to keep talking through a crisis, Mehta says don't be afraid of silence either. Silences tend to fill us with dread, and they can feel especially awkward during a videoconference, stressing us out. And when we feel stressed, we're more likely to give something away unintentionally.

"In online negotiations, we need to develop a higher tolerance for silence," says Mehta. A well-timed silence may come as welcome relief if things get heated, allowing for cooler heads to prevail. And it's during silences that we may have a creative breakthrough. Deliberately holding back can prompt the other party to fill in the silence, revealing more information than they normally would, which could provide the key to reframing the deal in a way that satisfies the other side.

A strategic use of silence as part of an ongoing conversation helps to remedy the "time synchronization bias" that arises when negotiating at a distance and not in real time, through email exchanges, for example. You need to build in a period of reflection to allow for clarifications before a final agreement is reached. "Just take care that a pause doesn't become a full stop. Don't abandon the dialogue."

Keep the long-term objective in mind. Finally, never let short-term interests overshadow the longer term need for us all to come out of this crisis together: "We both need each other for our mutual, long-term survival."

Mehta notes that this point may hit home during the Brexit negotiations that are meant to be finalized before the end of 2020. "The coronavirus crisis may actually change the dynamic of the Brexit negotiations, and we may see the parties become more collaborative rather than getting stuck as they have done until now."

"It's important to negotiate in this crisis not out of fear, but to spread more hope. And if we seek to spread hope, we'll get more hope in return, which will spread out to society."

WATCH: "Negotiating for Crisis Management" with Kandarp Mehta.

For more tips like these, go to where you will find a host of open-access resources, including links to online sessions, to help the business community and others work together to overcome this unprecedented crisis. #NowMoreThanEver
This article is based on:  Negotiating for crisis management
Year:  2020
Language:  English