'Negotiating the Impossible': An Interview With Deepak Malhotra

There's a reason that Getting to Yes has sold untold copies: Negotiation is an essential skill and many people aren't terribly adept at it. On a professional level, I have left considerable funds on the table over the course of my career. Only in hindsight did I realize that I could have arrived at a better deal.

At least I'm not alone. Many other folks would do well to hone their negotiation skills. To this end, I recently sat down with Deepak Malhotra, the Eli Goldston Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. His new book Negotiating the Impossible: How to Break Deadlocks and Resolve Ugly Conflicts (without Money or Muscle) offers principles to apply in everyday life--whether negotiating job offers, resolving business disputes, or tackling obstacles in personal relationships. The following are excerpts from our conversation.

PS: What was your inspiration for writing the book?

DM: Over the years, I have had the privilege of teaching many thousands of business owners, executives, managers and sales professionals. I've consulted on hundreds of business deals and advised on numerous protracted conflicts (e.g., when governments are trying to negotiate an end to insurgencies). One issue that people in all of these domains ask about is how they can negotiate more effectively when things look really hopeless. For example what can they do when they have no power, or when the other side is behaving aggressively? How can they overcome mistrust, or deal with someone who is behaving unethically? What can be done when conflict is escalating and no one is willing to back down? There are other books that touch on such issues, but none that have given it the attention it deserves--or provided the tools necessary to tackle these obstacles. After having worked on scores of high-stakes negotiations, deadlocked deals, political stalemates and seemingly intractable conflicts, I have come to believe that even the most difficult negotiation problems have potential solutions. I wrote this book to make that case, and to give people the tools they need to be more effective in negotiations of all kinds--from the mundane to the seemingly impossible.

PS: What are some of the biggest mistakes that people make when negotiating?

DM: For many, it is a lack of preparation, usually stemming from the flawed assumption that negotiation is all art and no science. For others, it is that they don't know how to can make their idea or proposal more persuasive or appealing. But perhaps the biggest mistake negotiators make is to focus too much on their own needs and concerns, and not enough on the perspective or interests of the other side. These are all costly mistakes, and I address each of them (and many more) in the book.

PS: You write in the book about "negotiating the process." What do you mean by that?

DM: Negotiators tend to focus a lot on the substance of the deal, but not enough on process. Substance refers to what will be in the agreement; process is how you will get to an eventual agreement. For example, one of the lessons of the book is negotiate process before substance. Consider the following situation. You have been negotiating for months and are finally at a point where you think that and a deal is likely. There are a few concessions that you've saved up to help close the deal when the timing is right. You make these concessions, and the other side responds, "Thanks. This is quite helpful. Let me just speak to my boss and see what she thinks about your latest proposal." You are shocked: he has a boss? You thought the deal was finished. You have nothing left to give. This is one problem with not having negotiated process before substance. Before you start haggling over deal-terms and exchanging concessions, first negotiate the process. For example, you want to ask questions such as: How long does it take an organization like yours to do a deal like this? Who are all of the people that need to be on board? What factors might speed up or slow down progress? In the book, we also look at the importance of shaping/controlling the process, and what to do when the other side reneges on the process you had earlier agreed to.

PS: Tell me about the most difficult negotiation of your career. What did you learn from it?

DM: Well, it took seven years for me to convince my wife to marry me. So, I learned a lot about patience and perseverance, which are crucial traits when you are negotiating difficult deals or disputes. If you mean professionally, the more challenging negotiations arise when I advise small, early-stage companies who are negotiating with bigger, established players on complex or high-stakes strategic deals. Sometimes, the other side is a potential partner, but also your biggest competitor; they have deeper pockets; you're not sure whether they want to partner with you or find a way to destroy you. One lesson from these experiences: they may be bigger and stronger, but your greatest source of power in negotiation is your ability to create value for the other side. If you can make the negotiation about the value you bring to the table, you have the possibility of leveraging that to achieve your own objectives. The mistake people often make is to walk into the negotiation with a defeatist mindset, and they feed into the other side's narrative and expectations about who is in charge and who gets to dictate terms. As for the 'most difficult" negotiations, these are situations where governments are trying to negotiate an end to armed conflict. You have many parties, a long history of mistrust, hostility and perceived grievances, and a wide array of interests that range from political, to economic, to security, to matters of pride and identity. But I've learned that any problem humans have created can ultimately be solved by humans. We may not solve it today. It may not even be solvable today. But we can be wiser in crafting our strategy and more deliberate as we chart a path towards eventual resolution. The book gives tangible advice on how to do so in negotiations of all kinds--from the seemingly impossible to the more mundane.

PS: What characteristic best describes a great negotiator?

DM: Empathy. The most important task of a negotiator is to understand, as well as possible, the interests, constraints, alternatives and perspective of the other parties. This is not about being nice or generous--empathy is essential for achieving your own objectives in the deal. If you do not understand what drives them (their interests), you will have a hard time structuring a viable agreement, and you will not know how much leverage you have in dealing with them. If you fail to understand their constraints, you will ask for things that are impossible, and miss opportunities for resolving the dispute in ways that they could actually accept. If you do not evaluate their alternatives, you will misjudge how strong or weak they are, and how much value you bring to the table. Lastly, if you do not understand their perspective--how they are seeing and making sense of this deal or dispute, you will not be able to anticipate all of the barriers to getting the deal done. Ironically, empathy is needed most when you are dealing with people who seem to deserve it least. When you are negotiating with people who are behaving badly, it is tempting to simply write them off as irrational or evil--but this limits your own options, because you get blinded to the possibility that there is a way forward that reconciles each side's needs and concerns. This does not mean you have to have sympathy for them, or to agree that their demands and perspective are legitimate. But you must make the effort to understand why they deem them to be appropriate. The greater your capacity for empathy, the more likely you find a way forward.