I've often written about negotiation and how we undermine ourselves by buying into false narratives about how approach a negotiation. Sometimes that means adopting an us versus them mentality, which means someone must lose. Other times we try to compromise and meet halfway, which means both parties lose. And, when all else fails, we just hit the nuclear button and annihilate ourselves and everything in sight. These are all driven by emotions and not strategy.

I'm not saying that you can eliminate the emotional factor. In fact, you'll see that in some ways I'm going to suggest amplifying it in a very precise way.

However, in my experience the negotiations that work best are those which provide a well thought out strategy to guide emotions so that the outcomes meet the needs of all the parties involved.

"They key is not to convince them of anything, but instead to start by first by understanding them from their own perspective. Which means first shut up and listen."

That's not the view of an naive idealist, it's the view of a realist and of someone who expects to be there to sometimes negotiate with the same people over and over, again. Since the mid 1970's it's also been the view and the approach used by law enforcement agencies such as the NYPD and the FBI, where where the strategy I'm going to share was first developed.

But I'll warn you at the outset that this is a strategy will run counter to your every intuitive urge.

Shut Up and Listen

The strategy is called the stairway model and was developed by the FBI for negotiating in hostage situations, where emotions run high and rational thinking is often absent. It's simple elegance comes from how it turns your intuitive approach inside out. Most of us want to start on the last step of stairway model; we want to modify the other person's behavior, thinking, and desired outcomes by convincing them that we are right and they are wrong.

"The blunt truth is that we never get someone to see things our way until they first believe that we can see things their way."

We've all been there and it seems that the harder you try to win that person over the more they convince themselves that they are in the right! The reason is that while you're spending all of your time talking and convincing the other person he or she isn't hearing a word of it, they are just taking that time to reinforce their own perspective, argument, and logic, while you position yourself as an adversary. They key is not to convince them of anything, but instead to start by first by understanding them from their own perspective. Which means first shut up and listen.

The blunt truth is that we never get someone to see things our way until they first believe that we can see things their way.

As you read through these five steps I want you to do three things:

  1. First, pay close attention to both the sequence of the steps and also the degree of patience and discipline this process requires.
  2. Second, think of a recent situation that you might have been involved in where your desired outcome and that of the other person you were dealing with were at opposite ends of the spectrum. And use that as the context for how you might have approached it using this strategy.
  3. Third, I'd like you to adopt an attitude that will seem very foreign in the context of a negotiation. I want you to really care about the other person's desires, fears, concerns, and objectives. Yeah, that's a tough one when you're in the trenches feeling that you couldn't be farther removed from their point of view. But as you'll see without caring it's impossible to get through the first three steps of this process, which require that you immerse yourself in the other person's mind.

1) Active Listening

I was introduced to active listening by a friend's wife who taught active listening at a very prestigious Boston hospital. I was helping my friend raise capital for a new venture. Over the course of about six months we must have visited with well over 50 VCs to pitch our idea. What we soon realized was that the presentation, which is what we had focused on relentlessly for months prior to embarking on the roadshow, was at best table stakes and at worst a waste of time. The real challenge was finding out what the VCs saw as the opportunity; amazingly, that was rarely the same as what we saw.

When my friend shared some of our experiences with his wife she told him that we were not being active listeners. Huh? Of course we were! We were listening to ever concern and defending ourselves brilliantly. And that was exactly the problem.

We were spending far too much time trying to pitch our view of what was right without enough understanding of where the VCs saw the value. It didn't take long to figure out that what we needed to do was turn the tables by sharing just the basics upfront and then customizing our pitch to align with their perception of value by hearing what they had to say.

This is where most folks trying to convince anyone of anything make a crucial mistake. They've so bought into their point of view that they will immediately start to become defensive when challenged.

Active listening means listening "without judging" and making sure the party you're listening to knows that you heard them. You can learn more about one of the key components of main components of active listening, mirroring, in this Inc article.

2) Empathy

Unlike the popular definition of empathy, to feel for someone else, true empathy is understanding why someone else feels the way they do and then connecting by sharing those feelings. The distinction here is not just semantics. Really putting yourself in someone else's shoes means thinking the way they do whether you agree with them or not, without judging them.

A hostage negotiator doesn't have to agree with anything that the person they are negotiating with is telling them, but they do need to understand deeply why that person is saying what they are saying and acting the way they are acting.

The reason this comes second on the staircase is because you clearly cannot do that if you do not first suspend judgment and listen long enough to the other person. Although silence during any conversation may feel awkward learn to live with it. When you try to fill silence just to avoid it you lose the opportunity to learn about the other person. That's true throughout this process but especially so in the first two steps.

3) Rapport

Once you have established an understanding of the other person's state of mind, their motives, and their objectives, you can then start to respond in kind with words that will resonate with the person you are negotiating with. This isn't manipulation, and if it's seen that way you've lost. You need to step into their mindset and accept that the only way to reach them is through their own view of themselves and their situation. In a manner of speaking you are developing a form of Stockholm Syndrome, the term used to describe how hostages begin to see, understand, and ultimately adopt the rational of their captors.

4) Influence

Again, let go of the popular definition of what influence is. Most often we think of influence as a means of manipulating someone into doing something that they do not want to do. While that may work in circumstances where you have leverage over someone's fate, paycheck, or career, it does not work when they have the leverage. Instead think of influence as a way to problem solve with someone because you understand their objective and have illustrated a willingness to help them achieve it. Note here that if you've gone through the first three steps you may now actually have license to help them reframe their objectives in a way that addresses a deeper and more relevant problem than the one they originally presented you with.

5) Behavioral Change

Unfortunately this last step is where most of us start. We expect to be able to change someone's behavior by pointing out to them what's wrong with the way they are currently thinking, acting, and behaving. Good luck with that, it's called arrogance.

The plain truth is that it doesn't work for some very good reasons. First off you are making the fatal assumption that your truth is the only truth. This is one of those westernized modes of thinking that consistently gets us in trouble. There are few if any truths that we can all accept as absolutes. Aha, you're bristling at the thought of that last sentence, aren't you? That's my point. Once you start pitting one truth against another you've just lost the negotiation, or at best escalated it into full on warfare. If that's what you're prepared to do then by all means go for it and accept the collateral damage that will ensue.

I'm not saying that some truths are not worth fighting for. Indeed, sometimes that is the only way to deal with the threat of an opposing point of view that poses a moral or mortal threat. But it's not the first way to deal with it and few negotiations are really about morals and mortality. The fact is that if you have gone through the first four steps you are as well as equipped as you can be to propose alternatives and solutions that stand a chance of modifying an original behavior just enough to achieve an acceptable outcome for everyone involved.

Resist Temptation

So, as you read through the five steps and applied them to your own situation, did you see how the results might have been different if you'd taken this approach? I'll warn you that this is infinitely easier to read about than to practice. Having applied this for many years I still need to catch myself regularly when I'm tempted to jump ahead to the steps influence and behavioral change; that's a shortcut you'll pay for dearly.

We all want to believe that we are smart enough, convincing enough, and right enough to win someone over from the dark side. Which is why this simple strategy is so hard. You have to suspend your ego and check your arrogance in order to allow the other person to be heard and to provide yourself with the ability to enter their mind space. To follow the analogy, you're the one who has to step over to the dark side in order to find the light.

I know, you just thought to yourself, "The heck with that, why can't they enter my mind space?" There you go again! See, it's not easy. But what I can promise is that once you experience the results of the staircase model you'll forever use it as your first line strategy for dealing with difficult situations.

Does the stairway model always work? Of course not. But you'll be amazed at how well it increases the chances of arriving at an outcome that has the greatest likelihood of overall success for all of the parties involved.