Blog 9, of the series ‘Possible impacts of the current pandemic on international negotiation processes’.
By Frank Lavadoux, Olivia Brown, and Mathias Delmeire
As much as we’d like to think they are, negotiations are not rational – their outcomes do not entirely depend on a set of logical arguments, nor do they only depend on the personality of the people around the table. But leaving these aside, another factor that plays a crucial role in the direction the negotiation will take is the behaviour of the negotiator within the formal negotiation. We are not referring here to the person in themselves (we started to address that matter here) but rather to the relation the negotiator sustains with the mandate they received. Depending on the personal level of satisfaction the delegate has, their position will vary substantially during the discussion, leading to a completely different outcome. As a matter of fact, and as we teach during our training, three main positions can be identified while negotiating: the passive position, the aggressive position and the so-called assertive position. We will go back to the latter shortly, but let’s first draw the blueprints of the first and second positions.
In the passive position, the negotiator is typically entering the room with a weak BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) – leverage, if you will – or does not hold a strong interest on the topic at hand. Therefore, they will tend to follow the negotiation without expressing much resistance, leaving their counterparts with a stronger position to bring forth their opinions and needs. At the other end of the spectrum, the aggressive position tends to dismiss the points of view of others and their requests for a compromise. They typically have a strong BATNA, or simply care so much about the topic at hand it has become emotional for them, de facto ruling out any possibility of compromise-seeking behaviour. Obviously, none of these positions are ideal when the main point of any negotiation is to find a balanced compromise between the different counterparts – and not play a zero-sum game, as we had to occasion to write here before.
For a successful negotiation, we generally suggest adopting an assertive position.
Right, but what is that?
Assertiveness, what’s in a name?
Where does that leave us, and what does it actually mean to be assertive in a negotiation? In short, being assertive is being able to use the advantages of both the passive and aggressive positions in negotiations: it is all about finding the right balance between the detached style of a passive negotiator and the ability to hold a position if the proposed compromise doesn’t fit the mandate received. The language of an assertive negotiator is typically non-ambiguous and their demands are clearly formulated, all the while they are able to acknowledge the other’s point of view – or at least making it look like they do. In sum, assertiveness in a negotiation amounts to finding the middle ground between being confident and being considerate.
A word of caution from our EIPA negotiations experts, however: assertiveness in a negotiation is not perceived the same way depending on the cultural background of your counterpart. Depending on the country, and notably their relation to Hofstede’s Power Distance Index, the assertiveness you might display in a negotiation could be perceived as rude, too pushy or sometimes not assertive enough and too ambiguous. Therefore, make sure you have a little time before the formal start of the discussions to define the proper level of assertiveness needed to ensure your point will be conveyed, depending on your counterparts’ cultural background and your own.
Being assertive online: tips and tricks to tend towards the perfect combination
You certainly know by now that virtual negotiations vary in many degrees from face-to-face ones. Assertiveness, being carried largely by implicit cues, and being assertive during an online discussion, is certainly no exception to the trend.
First, non-verbal communication can’t help you the way it usually would (we’ve written why here). Showing you are actively listening by looking at the camera, rather than your screen when talking can help create the feeling of an ‘eye contact’, however strange it might seem at first. This is a good way to display an open but firm compromise-seeking behaviour. Have your position in check and show that you’re paying attention to details. For instance, you could try breaking the ice by making a light comment on your interlocutor’s background, place the angle of your camera to give your interlocutor a view going preferably below the shoulders, or simply make sure your otherwise light head nodding used to show you’re listening to somebody in real life is a amplified slightly, to make sure it’s noticed on the other side of the screen.
Positive body language is harder to convey online, but not impossible.
Second, consider a few practical steps that will help you stand out and take a leading position during the discussions. For instance, take the time to consider the agenda together before the beginning of the meeting. While it can also be done in face-to-face negotiation, structure and clarity are two crucial elements of assertiveness during an online meeting. You could also send a summary of what has been discussed after the meeting. Indeed, some people may not have fully understood what was going on (for various reasons, ranging from connection problems to echoes). In addition, we must not forget that since our attention span is much shorter during an online meeting than during face-to-face interaction, we might have missed some information. Sending a quick recap will help you confirm your position while appearing considerate enough to make sure everyone’s on the same page.
Third, as mentioned above, assertiveness means you need to have your emotions in check. We are not saying here you should automatically tend to rule out any emotion in your discussions. In negotiations, it is generally preferable to start off with a ‘logical line’ of argument, so emotions should not take up too much space. However, not having any emotions will be a hindrance once the going gets tough, and you need to switch to a more emotional line of argument to get at least a few compromises.
All in all, again, it is about finding the right balance. In an online setting, emotions need to be even more controlled. Indeed, it is for instance easier to express frustration against someone’s systematic refusal to move in their position behind our computer than expressing the irritation to the same person when they are at arm’s reach and their physical presence reminds us they’re human beings with their own constraints in this discussion. No magical solution here, we’re afraid. Being aware of it is, however, already a first step.
Fourth, consider the inter-cultural communication aspect during the meeting – especially since online meetings are here to last, given the numerous benefits it has for (public) organisations. As a consequence, you might find you are having an increasing number of meetings with people from very diverse backgrounds. Showing you understand cultural differences will help in making you appear open to compromise and ready to listen what the others have to say.
Finally, and we can never say this enough, do not do anything else while in a meeting. The online setting makes it very tempting to respond to an email or fact-check what someone is saying very quickly, thinking that no one will notice. Everyone does. Everyone. It makes you look like you are either not prepared or that you don’t care, delegitimising your position or simply making you look unprepared – two big don’ts of effective assertiveness during negotiations.
If assertiveness is the ideal position to adopt for a successful compromised solution, where all the parties can claim victory, it is also the hardest position to find. It has to be the perfect mix of confidence and consideration, while taking into account the cultural differences that might exist so you can adapt to your counterparts. Going online has not made it easier and may well have complicated the position. Without the non-verbal communication and with a more limited timespan, it is now become much harder to convey the arguments we want to convey, while limiting the ambiguity. We provided you with a few practical steps you could consider to be more assertive during your negotiations, or at least prevent the risk of becoming too passive or aggressive. See you next month.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and not necessarily those of EIPA.