You know the type of advice you roll your eyes at because as wonderful as it may sound in theory, it’s way too ridiculous to ever actually put into practice? The type of clunky, academic jargon that you’re sure must work but that you can’t imagine actually using with your friends or coworkers? This is exactly one of those things, but I promise you that if you hang in there and actually stick with it, it can completely change the way you communicate and solve business problems. I’m talking about (drum roll please) Interest-Based Negotiations.
Communication is Difficult
Let’s start by just acknowledging the fact that communication is fundamentally difficult. More often than we think, huge business problems can be created or avoided simply by communicating often and effectively. The problem is that we are the only ones who truly know what we mean and it’s up to all of us to communicate well if we want to be understood. In one of my favorite videos on how communication works, according to 20th Century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, the narrator argues that “Language triggers within us pictures of how things are in the world.” The problem is that “On the whole, we’re very bad at managing to make good pictures in the minds of others.” To understand what he means, think how much better you can picture a tall coconut tree by the beach than if your friend had described it as just “a tree.”
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In business, I see a lot of attention placed on improving listening skills, but what Wittgenstein argues is that “Problems of communication typically start because we don’t have a clear and accurate enough picture of what we mean in our own heads.” When the listener is already left to interpret what we mean, we do them a disservice when we give them very little to work off of. If you’ve ever played Pictionary with a bad partner, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Communicate Your Goal
So while it is easy to place the blame for miscommunication on poor listeners, there’s a lot that can be done by us when speaking to give the listener a better idea of what is meant. My favorite technique, Interest-Based Negotiation, is one I resisted at first, but have come to use almost every day. The idea is that we often argue based on our positions, what we say we want, instead of discussing our interests, or what our actual goal is. The easiest way to understand this concept is the example I was taught:
There were two chefs who both needed an orange, but there was only one orange left. The chefs fought back and forth, stating their position that they need to have an orange for their recipe. Time was running out, so they compromised by splitting the orange in half. One Chef squeezed the juice from the orange to pour into his sauce, the other grated the peel to stir into his cake batter. Neither one had quite enough for their recipe.
In this example, the chefs were so fixated on their position of “needing the orange” that they failed to share their interests of needing just the peel or just the juice. The result was a missed opportunity to both get what they wanted had they only understood what the other one actually needed.
You see the same thing happens in workplaces all the time. A new employee says that they need less work while the manager says they need to do even more. A month later, it turns out the employee had different skills and just needed a different kind of work. The manager didn’t need him spending more time, she just needed him to spend his time more productively. In this example, the employee’s position was that he needed to do less work, but his interest was doing less of the work he found boring and time-consuming. The manager’s position was that she needed the employee to do more work, but her interest was actually needing to get more value out of the employee. If they had both shared their interests up front, they could have come to an understanding and found a resolution much faster.
While stating your interests may seem clunky and awkward at first, it eventually becomes natural and even starts to change the way you communicate with yourself (stay with me here). When you’re forced to be vulnerable and tell someone your interests, you realize that you also have to know your interests. Examining why we want what we want is not something most people think about on a daily basis (unless you’re a marketer). But if you can train yourself to think through the “whys” behind your actions, you begin to generate different solutions to the same problem. For example, your position may be that you want to work from home, but after thinking about it, you realize your interest is to work in a quiet place without distractions. If you can’t work from home, you can meet your interest another way by going into a conference room in the office.
So how do you get started actually integrating something like this into your life? The best way I found is to lead by example until your friends and coworkers catch on. It will be strange to throw around the words “position” and “interest” at first, but if you buy in and stick with it, you’ll end up with more effective communication and a better understanding of yourself.
Speak to Your Customer’s Interest
You can also explore the minds of your customers to help solve their challenges more effectively. Anyone who’s familiar with branding understands that the intangible value created by a brand’s persona can be as important as their products’ or services’ actual functionality. Brands can leverage branding when they understand the difference between their customers’ stated and implicit objectives. A parent may state that they want a classic phone instead of a smartphone, their position when actually their interest is to have a product that isn’t too complex for them to operate. A savvy phone retailer can reach past the customer’s position and offer simplified smartphone solutions that speak to the customer’s interest and make the sale. The same idea works for writing great content, developing strategic marketing campaigns, or leading an effective meeting. When you understand the interest behind a stated position, you have a better chance of reaching your audience in a compelling way.
Whether you’re more into Wittgenstein or business communications, the idea is still the same: the better we know what we want, the better we can explain it, and the better others will understand us. The more we can describe the “why” behind our questions, the more likely we are to find a compromise. It’s easy to blame bad listeners entirely for broken communication, but let’s do our part as speakers and paint better pictures of what we mean in the minds of others.
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