Key Points:

Learning how to negotiate well is the last of the low-hanging fruit from a management point of view.

Negotiation is the most frequent voluntary activity engaged in by the human species – yet it is a confusing business. It ranges from the simplest things that we do, from ordering a coffee, to trying to resolve the problems of the ages: religious, territorial or ideological conflicts.

Many millions of people have died due to the fundamental failure of negotiations – that murderous phenomenon known as uncontrolled escalation. Yet we, the great unsung majority of the world's population, go about our business peacefully and moderately effectively.

The volume of negotiation events in highly connected societies is immense, with the advent of the internet, but few of us ever think of the true purpose of a negotiation, nor the means by which we do it.

By definition, negotiation is every event, in person, in writing, or electronic, by which we seek to influence other people's behaviour, or vice versa. We talk about reaching agreement, achieving consensus, mutuality or resonance, but I suggest that the true aspirational objective of the negotiation process ought be creating value.

Regrettably our instincts tend to let us down quite dramatically, particularly when we negotiate at speed (the norm these days, thanks to email and mobile phones). While the real objective is to achieve, wherever possible, an integrative outcome, our instincts seem to push us towards distributive bargaining, the most basic, but most intuitive method of all. This "more for you, less for me" or zero sum approach creates little or no value.

Negotiation skills training can quite quickly develop different structural approaches where one can genuinely attempt to create the true "win / win" outcome where possible. Professor William Ury encourages us to "go slow to go fast" – no easy thing in our society. Other authors say that agreeing with someone is as much of a habit as disagreeing, but of course the challenge is how to do it.

One of the easiest but most often ignored ways of creating value is by developing the skill of being genuinely empathetic. Many authors have written about this and Howard Raiffa in his book "The Art and Science of Negotiation" has identified the management of the tension between empathy and assertiveness as one of the key skills of the negotiator. Sadly many negotiators, fuelled by a misconception that merely driving for an outcome is desirable and sufficient, flame out long-term because of their failure to manage relationships. It is this inherent tension of balancing empathy with assertiveness where so much readily available value is unnecessarily destroyed by the zero sum bargainer.

We know that repetitive disciplined structured processes can significantly improve our negotiation performance, but very few people take the time, or even know where to look, to upskill. Given that negotiation permeates the very fabric of our lives, that seems unwise and illogical. Learning how to negotiate well is what I suggest is the last of the low-hanging fruit from a management point of view.

This article was first published in The Australian Mining Review, October 2014.