The why's have it: teaching curiosity for effective negotiation and mediation

Cultivating curiosity in negotiators and mediatorsWhat makes Deepak Malhotra’s and Max H. Bazerman’s 2007 Negotiation Genius: How to Overcome Obstacles and Achieve Brilliant Results at the Bargaining Table and Beyond so highly readable are the memorable anecdotes of real-world negotiations it contains. Among my favorites is one that concerns a colleague of the authors, a “negotiation genius” identified by his first name only, “Chris”.

Chris’s firm was negotiating with a small European company to purchase an ingredient for a new health-care product. The two firms agreed on a price but became deadlocked over the question of exclusivity – the American firm did not want to invest in a product containing an ingredient to which its competitors would have access, and the European company refused to sell the ingredient exclusively to the American firm. The American firm, surprised by the stubborn refusal of their European counterparts to agree to an exclusive arrangement, offered more money and other incentives, but the European firm wouldn’t budge. Malhotra and Bazerman describe what happened next:

As a last resort the U.S. team called Chris and asked him to fly to Europe to join them.

When Chris arrived and took a seat at the bargaining table, the argument over exclusivity continued. After listening briefly to the two sides, he interjected one simple word that changed the outcome of the negotiation. With it, he was able to structure a deal that both firms found agreeable. The word was “why”.

Chris simply asked the supplier why he would not provide exclusivity to a major corporation that was offering to buy as much of the ingredient as he could produce. The supplier’s answer was unexpected: exclusivity would require him to violate an agreement with his cousin, who current purchased 250 pounds of the ingredient each year to make a locally sold product. With this information in hand, Chris proposed a solution that helped the two firms quickly wrap up an agreement: the supplier would provide exclusivity with the exception of a few hundred pounds annually for the supplier’s cousin…

Why didn’t the other U.S. negotiators ask this simple question? Because, based on their prior business experience, they assumed they already knew the answer…

Other factors, I suspect, may have been in play here, working against the U.S. negotiators. Etiquette and social pressures inhibit inquiry. From a young age we learn that “it’s not polite to ask questions”. As we grow older, we worry that asking questions will make us look stupid, singling us out for unwelcome notice by the group.

In defiance of these deep-rooted social and cultural taboos on question-asking, virtually every best-selling negotiation text urges negotiators to “get curious”. G. Richard Shell, author of Bargaining for Advantage, prescribes a process that he calls “Information-Based Bargaining”, which emphasizes the importance of question-asking and careful listening, lauding the “relentless curiosity” skilled negotiators bring to the table. Mediation trainers also encourage curiosity in their students, so that they can delve deep into the needs and motivations of parties locked in conflict. In their classic work, The Making of a Mediator: Developing Artistry in Practice, Bernard Mayer and Alison Taylor define such artistry as “a commitment to curiosity and exploration”.

If curiosity is so essential to effective negotiation and conflict resolution, can educators and trainers teach curiosity? That’s a question that Vanderbilt University Law School Professor Chris Guthrie considers and answers in “I’m Curious: Can We Teach Curiosity?” (PDF) (copyright 2009 DRI Press, Hamline University School of Law). Determined to go beyond the “glib references to the need for curiosity” in negotiation literature, Professor Guthrie offers a short primer on the scientific study of curiosity and proposes some curiosity-enhancing teaching strategies. He concludes with a link to an article that appeared in Psychology Today in September 2006, “Cultivating Curiosity“, by Elizabeth Svoboda, which recommends three tips on how to “flex your curiosity muscle“, whether you’re negotiating, mediating, or doing something else entirely.

Incidentally, Professor Guthrie’s article is one chapter in an outstanding volume on negotiation pedagogy, Rethinking Negotiation Teaching: Innovations for Context and Culture, a collective effort to rethink how negotiation is taught in the 21st century. Those curious to learn more about negotiation teaching can download Professor Guthrie’s chapter along with the others at the Hamline University School of Law web site.

6 responses to “The why's have it: teaching curiosity for effective negotiation and mediation

  1. Diane;

    Listening to the Bazerman example with a critical ear, and reviewing the chapter, I hear something false in the Chris story.

    Nobody asking for exclusivity wouldn’t ask first whether there were other distributors who were already being supplied. It would be exceedingly odd for the US negotiators not to first ask about who in the US was already being supplied.

    In short, I thought this was either a made up example, or a real example too simplified.

  2. Michael, you’re assuming that people always act rationally and capably. They don’t.

    I recognized many disputants in Malhotra’s and Bazerman’s story. It’s an oft-told and familiar tale, I’m afraid. After many years mediating, I continue to be amazed at how often even the most experienced, insightful, and intelligent people have failed to ask the most obvious questions – it’s all too often the reason they end up mired in conflict or why deals fell through. If they’d thought of these questions early on, they wouldn’t need a mediator. Too often people assumed they already knew the answers and therefore neglected to ask the necessary questions – a deeply human and commonly encountered error. How fortunate you must be to work with clients who are dependably rational actors.

    From where you and I sit, Michael, the questions may be obvious – but not necessarily to those in the thick of it.

  3. When in doubt always take the simple route – in this complicated world it is often the “road less traveled.” Thanks Diane for your commentary and recommended readings.

  4. Sandy, I like that metaphor! And thanks to you, too!

  5. Hi, Diane –

    Great article. I find the situation described happens over and over.

    Sometimes the question isn’t quite as simple as “why,” but regardless of the actual question, we’re seeking understanding. And, almost always, understanding is dependent on access to relevant information.

    It’s not that people intentionally hide information. As you mentioned in your comment to Michael above, I believe we often assume we all have the same knowledge, the same information – so, we assume there’s no need to say some things out loud. When this happens we end up talking in circles – circles that revolve endlessly around what’s not being said.

    I was facilitating a collective bargaining agreement negotiation for a non-profit when, after a number of two-hour sessions, I finally asked: “So, could that mean reducing services?”

    Immediately, I knew I’d asked “the question.”

    This simple – but difficult – question opened the door to a previously undisclosed layer of needs and interests. From this point, we could begin moving forward.

    I certainly hadn’t done anything spectacular or clever by any means – I was just being my “relentlessly curious” self. 🙂

    Thank you for providing such a wonderful forum.

    Take care.

  6. Debra, thanks for your comment and your kind words. I’m constantly amazed at the human resistance to asking questions. Your typical three-year-old asks about 30 questions for each hour he or she is awake. By the time we’re adults that drops off to maybe 6 or 10 a day. I think curiosity gets beaten out of us by the time we reach adulthood. It’s time to celebrate questions not shush them.