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  • Is there an ideal negotiation?

Is there an ideal negotiation?

21 November 2021

Gerard Rahman, Partner |

We negotiate to win, don’t we? We know we should seek a win-win, but isn’t that just an idealist view? Let me share a story. The twist in this tale is not where you would expect. Just between the two of us, I didn’t see it coming at all.

In our organisational culture class, roughly 25 years ago, Dr Andrew Brown asked for two volunteers to negotiate. The rest of us would observe. The volunteers got their instructions and sat outside to prepare. Dr Brown then shared the instructions with the rest of us. It was something like this. The first student represents a pharmaceutical company that needs 20,000 rare oranges for clinical trials to launch a new product. The parent company had a shipment of 20,000 of these oranges. However, a sister company within the group, a cosmetic company, also want the oranges. The second student had a similar note, but he represents the sister cosmetic company that needs 20,000 rare oranges for a new customer.

Our two classmates sat opposite each other, as chess players do, encircled by an intrigued audience. The positions quickly became entrenched. Dr Brown called for a break. Smiling, he passed the negotiators a new note each. One note explained that the pharmaceutical needed orange pulp. On the other note, it said the cosmetic company needed the orange peel.

I know you think this is easy now. Well, let’s press pause for a second. Dr Brown’s example comes from a classic situation where two sisters negotiate over a single orange. One sister needs it for an orange cake and the other for an orange drink. I think Mary Parker Follett developed this example of two sisters to explain the stages in negotiation. To cut the orange in half would not have satisfied either sister. You can tell it is a powerful way to learn negotiating skills because I remember the example 25 years later. We can thank Mary for developing this more than 100 years ago. Mary threw light on the human element within management theory when most people focussed on mechanics.   

Let’s go back to Dr Brown’s class. Like you, the remainder of the classmates could see where the solution lay in this negotiation as one needed the pulp and the other the peel. But the negotiators couldn’t see that yet. And here is the twist. The audience was at the edge of their seats. It took incredible restraint not to scream out to the negotiators: “just say what you need!” When I reflected, I thought the process had been nicely set by Dr Brown because, as the audience, he didn’t tell us how it works; he showed us how it works.

I wish I could learn from every experience. Sadly, I don’t. A few years later, I faced a difficult situation. The world was not going to end, but I felt the stakes were sickeningly high. A wise person sat with me. He gently said, “you both are holding your cards too close to your chest.” I knew what I had to do. And the outcome from that one was extraordinary. Thoroughly understanding someone else’s position, and enabling them to understand yours, opens the doors for success and usually leads to a win-win. Indeed, some might say ideal.

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