Interview by Keyna Franklin
Daniel Ames is a Columbia Business School professor who specializes in negotiation.
Q: You’ve taught that it’s important to go into a negotiation with a clear idea of what your goal is. Why is that important?
A: The beginning of preparation for any negotiation is to define success – what is it that you’re trying to achieve? Take a step back to look at the big picture. In child welfare, your goals might be about the unity of your family and wellbeing of your child. Define success at a high level, and then define the more specific things you want to achieve in the meeting you’re about to have.
That might sound obvious. You might think, “Everybody knows what they want – wouldn’t this already be clear?” But a lot of times people go into negotiation without being clear. Write down your goal in a sentence or two, and that becomes a compass during the conversation to guide how you’re acting or reacting. Things will happen to make us upset and draw us off course from our goals. But, when it is written down in front of you, you can look at it and ask yourself, “Is the next thing I’m going to say going to bring me closer to my goal or put me at risk?”
Q: Do you suggest planning out what your fall-back goals are?
A: You want to imagine your dream outcome, but also be ready for: If I have to give up something, what would I give up? If I don’t get what I want today, how do I lay the groundwork so that in a month or six months I get closer? These are not just one-time meetings, but a process.
You can also do some “scenario planning” – imagine that they won’t give you exactly what you want. Ask yourself, “What should I say? What should I propose in return?” Think about alternatives and what could happen and how you want to react. It may not be fun to imagine in advance that you’re not going to get what you want, but it’s better to think that through beforehand, and calmly talk that through with other people, than processing that for the first time in the moment.
Q: You’ve also spoken about how negotiations are often not zero-sum games – where if one person wins the other loses. Can you explain that?
A: A zero-sum game is when you view a negotiation as a battle and the only way for you to win is for me to lose.
Q: How can both people win in a negotiation?
A: It could be that there’s a few different things at stake and that what matters most to one person is different from what matters to another person. In that case, if I give you more of what matters most to you, and you give me more of what matters most to me, that’s a trade that makes us both win.
In child welfare, that is a real challenge because it can feel like, “I’m talking to someone who wants to destroy my family.” That’s terrifying. That really feels like an enemy. The stakes in these conversations are unbelievably high. Still, there may be value in trying to set aside the emotion and understand it from the other person’s point of view. What are they worried about? What problem are they trying to solve?
It may be that both sides of the table have some overlap. Usually, their goal is not to destroy a family, just like a parent’s goal is not to endanger a child. To some degree, everybody is concerned about the child. Everybody is pulling in the same direction.
Q: You’ve talked about not getting “goal-jacked” – losing focus on your actual goal and instead getting caught up in getting respect, power, or something else. Why do people get goal-jacked?
A: People get goal-jacked when something happens in a conversation that lures us away from our true objectives and we start to act as if some other concern is overwhelmingly important. If you’re in a negotiation and you say something that makes a person feel like they’re not so smart, all of a sudden, even though they didn’t come in trying to prove that they’re smart, it suddenly becomes important to prove that.
Q: How can people avoid having an emotional reaction that puts their real goal at risk?
A: If you’re starting to lose your balance – sometimes the smartest thing to do is to call for a time out. You can say, “This means a lot to me, and it’s getting really hard for me. Can we take five minutes so I can collect my thoughts and when I come back we can have the best possible conversation?”
Step aside, scream, talk to whomever is there with you to be helpful. Take some deep breaths. That process of taking a pause to compose yourself before the next step is often the smartest thing to do.
Another good idea is to practice through role-playing. Think in advance about some of the toughest questions you might get in this conversation. What are the things you need to persuade the other side of? Take a pass at trying to put it into words and say them out loud.
Q: Parents may have attorneys, parent advocates, or others involved in their case as allies. How can allies be helpful in a negotiation?
A: Other people on your team can help in a negotiation, and it’s really critical to have a good preparation with your allies. You want to tell them: “When you advocate for me, I want you to know this is the outcome that matters most to me. These are the things we’re going to push for in the short term.”
You also need an information strategy with your allies: “What are the questions we’re going to get? How will we answer?” Teams need to agree in advance on what to say and what to hold back.