A New Definition of Negotiation: Dueling Narratives
Takeaway: Every negotiation is a duel between two competing narratives. You have your story, and he has his.
In your story, you are the hero – trusty and brave. Your treasures are rare and valuable; your requirements reasonable; the benefits immense.
In HIS story, you are a common peasant, your offering is ordinary and he has many other options – all at least as good as yours. If you start haggling over prices before you have won him over to your basic premise, you are fighting from a weak position.
Haggling over price is a street brawl - Strategic negotiation is a contest between two competing viewpoints. It doesn’t matter whether you are asking for a raise or want to be General Manager of a new JV, you must convince your counterparty to adapt your view of reality. It's a duel between your worldview and his. Whoever can tell the most persuasive story, wins.
Every story has a background, a buildup, some kind of central conflict, and a resolution. After that, there’s a new status quo.
Let’s look at an example.
You’re Mel Millennial, and you’ve been working at Infinity Systems in a sales position for almost 10 months. You learned the job quickly, performed well, and now you want a raise and a better title.
Here's your initial background story:
“I have brought in 1.5 million dollars of new revenue, opened 6 new major accounts, and have been in the top 15% in every significant ranking. I’ve been at the company for almost a year, and have already hit all my targets. I deserve a 20% increase in compensation – salary and commission rate – and a better title.”
Sounds reasonable – to you. But your division manager, Bob Boomer, may have a completely different narrative.
“There are 20 people on the team. It’s not the Mel show, it’s the Infinity Systems show. You’ve done your job, yes. That’s what you’re paid for. The reason you’re able to sell is that Infinity has new products & services, a great support team and expensive technology – all of which puts pressure on the bottom line. The company has policies about how and when compensation gets reviewed and adjusted. Your annual review will be in a couple of months, and we can discuss the results after that.”
Mel needs to find a way to persuade Bob that his story is relevant to the company – and to Bob. If he continues with his existing narrative, he’s is in a very weak position.
Bob has given Mel a couple of clues, though. Mel’s position is one of individual ambition – he’s telling a story of HOPE. Bob, however, is revealing his challenges – a team that is too big to manage, established bureaucratic procedures, expenses that he can’t manage, and pressure to prop up the bottom line. It’s a FEAR story. He also made a soft commitment to Mel to discuss his situation in two months – giving our hero plenty of time to prepare.
Mel may not be able to push his boss into concessions right away, but he can spin his existing story in a way that plays to both his hopes AND Bob’s fears.
Here’s Mel’s new narrative:
“Those are good points, and I am looking forward to my annual review. I realize that you are managing big team – and I think I can help out there. You seem to agree that my numbers prove I’ve got the mechanics of sales down, but now I want to go to the next level and develop my management skills. I’m confident that the standard annual review will back me up. When we meet, can we talk about things I can do to take on more responsibility? I would like to talk to you about managing a few key accounts, and helping to train some of the new people we’ll be onboarding. Would it be possible to accelerate the annual review so that you and I can start discussing ways I can do more around here?”
Mel’s new story is sharper, and more customized to his counter-party’s worldview. He’s offering a win-win solution (Mel takes on more of a management role to reduce the pressure on Bob), and changing his primary variable to something that might be easier for Bob to deliver (accelerating the review with HR).
Mel has also turned his performance numbers into a benchmark (you seem to agree that my numbers prove…) and set a couple of important variables (key accounts, management role, accelerating the formal review process).
Know their own story and engineer it to be more effective and persuasive
Understand the other side’s view of the world.
Make their story more persuasive by setting benchmarks
Set the agenda, control the process, and determine variables
Are careful to develop a negotiating narrative that has a happy ending for both sides.