If you think you have a tough negotiation in front of you, just remember what those leading the recent, successful climate change negotiations in Paris were facing.

Not only did they have to get 195 participants to agree -- 195! -- but those participants were countries with their own internal complications (just think how hard it is to get Congress to accomplish anything at all right here in America). They were discussing a huge and continually evolving problem on a global scale. Oh, and the future of the world might just be at stake.

So how did they manage to come to consensus? An interesting recent Quartz article offers a glimpse inside the negotiations, describing a clever trick those running the show used, which business owners might actually be able to benefit from trying themselves.

An indaba to the rescue

"The trick to getting through an over-complicated negotiation comes from the Zulu and Xhosa people of southern Africa. It's called an 'indaba' (pronounced IN-DAR-BAH), and is used to simplify discussions between many parties," writes Ekshat Rathi in the article.

How does it work? "Instead of repeating stated positions, each party is encouraged to speak personally and state their 'red lines,' which are thresholds that they don't want to cross. But while telling others their hard limits, they are also asked to provide solutions to find a common ground," Rathi explains. The technique was first tried during the Durbin talks in 2011, reportedly saving the meeting from utter collapse.

It sounds simple, but the technique had a profound technique at the talks. "By including everyone and allowing often hostile countries to speak in earshot of observers, it achieved a remarkable breakthrough within 30 minutes," reported John Vidal in the UK Guardian's live blog covering the talks.

Participants seemed happy with the trick as well. "It is a very effective way to streamline negotiations and bridge differences. It has the advantage of being participatory yet fair. It should be used much more when no way through a problem can be found," one African diplomat told Vidal.

It's a strong recommendation for the time-tested technique. Maybe it could help you next time a negotiation threatens to descend into deadlock or cacophony. Rather than another go-round where everyone digs in their heels about their positions, why not try to switch things up, asking each participant to share their red lines and suggestions for solutions face to face, instead?

Published on: Dec 15, 2015
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