A Conversation with Dr. Joshua N. Weiss, One of the World’s Foremost Negotiation Experts.

Joshua N. Weiss

Dr. Joshua N. Weiss is one of the world’s foremost experts in negotiation. He is co-founder of the Global Negotiation Initiative at Harvard University and a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Negotiation Project. He is also the Director and creator of the Master of Science degree in Leadership and Negotiation at Bay Path University. Dr. Weiss has spoken and published on leadership, negotiation, mediation, and systemic approaches to dealing with conflict.

Dr. Weiss is the author of The Book of Real-World Negotiations: Successful Strategies From Business, Government, and Daily Life (Wiley Publishers 2020) The book shines a light on real-world negotiation examples and cases rather than discussing hypothetical scenarios. It reveals what is possible through preparation, persistence, creativity, and taking a strategic approach to your negotiations. Dr. Weiss has conducted trainings and consulted with many organizations, companies, and governmental entities, including Microsoft, General Motors, United Auto Workers, Christie’s Art Auction House, Deloitte, Genzyme, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale Medical School, the United Nations (Mediation Unit, UNAOC, UNITAR, and UNDP), Government of Canada, the US Government (State Department, Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Park Service, and Transportation Security Administration), and various state governments.

In this interview, I speak to Dr. Joshua N. Weiss, one of the world’s foremost negotiation experts & co-founder of the Global Negotiation Initiative at Harvard University. We discuss what it takes to be a great negotiator, why negotiation skills matter, and the secrets of how to effectively handle even the most complex negotiations.

Q: How would you define negotiation?

[Joshua Weiss]: A love to people think negotiation is very specifically the kind of activity you see when engaging in sales, for example. I see negotiation as a strategic interaction between two or more people who are engaging for one of three reasons. One, to come up with some kind of agreement or deal or to foster a business relationship. Two, to resolve a conflict or deal with a difficult problem or challenging situation. Three, to develop relationships and engage with others over the long-term rather than just for some kind of negotiated agreement.

I don’t think people realise how prevalent negotiation is in their lives. At work, we negotiate constantly, with our bosses, clients, co-workers, those we supervise, and the universe of people we deal with on a daily basis. We also negotiate at home with our parents, spouses, kids…. I have 3 daughters, and life with them is an endless series of negotiations, and whether they’d like to admit it or not, those skills are helping them in life without them really realising. Even day to day life is a series of never-ending negotiations. You might be out dealing with a credit card company to dispute a bill… you might be trying to negotiate with an airline who are trying to give you credit, rather than give your money back… you might be buying a home… a car…

Negotiation is really a life skill, and it’s essential in this day and age.

Q: How do you handle emergency negotiations where you don’t have preparation time?

[Joshua Weiss]: It’s very rare that you don’t have any preparation time in a negotiation, but it does happen. In the teaching and training I do, I explain that there are two major things you deal with in negotiation. Firstly, the people you deal with – and the dynamics of power, culture and trust. Secondly, you. How you cope with negotiation and learn the process and dynamics. The more knowledge you get, the more you develop the core skills to draw-on at a split second.

With negotiation, you are always dealing with incomplete information. When you and I sit down, you know things about a situation that I don’t, and vice Vera’s. Negotiation is therefore an exploration process, and it requires patience. The more you’re negotiating, the more you’re staying at the table and engaging – the more information reveals itself. Value may be hidden initially because the other side doesn’t know how to bring it up… how to share it with you without you taking advantage of it… as comfort builds, you gather information, and share it too, that becomes a critical part of the process.

Q: How do we prepare the skills we need to negotiate?

[Joshua Weiss]: Negotiations are difficult, and to do them well you have to be humble and understand that there’s a lot going on. I run a 2 year Masters Degree program in negotiation, and when students come-out I tell them, ‘you’re not a great leader or negotiator now, but you have the foundations, knowledge and skills to develop on…’ Situational awareness is the bit you only learn through the practice of negotiation, and it’s essential. US President, Dwight Eisenhower said ‘plans are useless, but planning is everything.’ He was talking about war, but the dynamic is very similar to any negotiation. You don’t want to go into a negotiation thinking you will do A, B & C to get to D… you want to think about your goal – negotiation is not about reaching agreement, it’s about meeting your objective as best as possible. If you know your objective at the start of a negotiation, and at the end think you could do better elsewhere or indeed can’t find sense in agreement, that’s actually a success. We then get to the idea of planning – contingency planning specifically – being clear on what your angle is, but also thinking through the 3 or 4 different avenues you can go down to get to that goal. It’s like playing chess. If you plan in chess, it doesn’t work, as you’re not controlling the other side’s pieces… in the same sense, you’re not controlling the other negotiator’s moves. Thinking in this way makes you far more ready to change your route or approach if the other side does something that you didn’t expect- which is highly likely.

Q: How do we break deadlocks or solve unsolvable negotiations? 

[Joshua Weiss]: Creative problem solving is key to resolving negotiations which feel deadlocked. It could be international business, peace processes, governmental negotiations, hostage negotiations…. In all of these scenarios, you see success when people move from positions to interests and don’t get stuck in back-and-forth (which is symptomatic of not understanding what the other side values or needs). In a deadlock, a good negotiator would say, ‘we have this problem, how do we solve it? How do we understand what’s important to each other, and whether these interests are really incompatible?

Mindset is important – if you go into every negotiation thinking problems are all nails, you’ll only use a hammer. I look at every negotiation as an opportunity to solve a problem between me and the other negotiator. They are not my adversary – I need them – and they need me. Positions are what people say they want, interests are why they want the things they want. In most deadlocked negotiations, people haven’t really got down to understanding what’s driving the other side. Those things often remain hidden, and are key to a solution.

Q: How does culture play a role in negotiation?

[Joshua Weiss]: Anyone who has travelled understands the notion of culture shock. When we get into a society that’s different from ours, we may not understand how it’s organised, how it works and what the principles are. For negotiators, it’s important to understand culture, but there’s a tendency to focus on the superficial aspects of culture, customs and behaviours. The anthropologist, Edward Hall, wrote in the 1960s about deep culture and how societies are really built and organised, and the importance of the role of relationships. In the 1980s, 90s and early 2000s, American companies would travel overseas to places like Saudi Arabia and try to get down to business immediately – in cultures where it’s important to get to know people, to ask about their families, to build relationships before getting down to business. Another example can be found in Asian cultures, where the notion of face saving is really important (in fact, the whole of society is oriented around it). If I said no to you, and caused you to lose face in a negotiation, it would be dishonouring you. It’s important therefore that in those contexts, if you are facing a situation where the other side could lose face, that you create an off-ramp to avoid that. Nobody wants to feel embarassed – or tarnished – these are the intangible elements of negotiation. You can throw money at people to a point, but money will rarely solve a situation where people feel humiliated or disrespected.

People will often say, ‘if only we could take the emotion out of negotiation…’ you cant. Negotiations are between humans, not robots. If you mistreat humans and create distrust, you have to rebuild trust before you can get any kind of agreement to move forward.

We also ,talk about the notion of respect, for example. In many cultures, respect is a hierarchical notion. But in other places it’s an earned notion. So you and I could use the same word, respect, in our negotiation, but it would mean very, very different things to us and how it might manifest itself in an agreement or during the process.

Q: What can we learn from negotiation in extreme situations?

[Joshua Weiss]: I’ve gotten to know a number of hostage negotiators over the years, and they recognise that a key part of solving a problem is engaging with the other. Hostage negotiators build rapport early with the person or people they are negotiating with – it’s never ‘throw your hands up and come out, or we’re all coming in…’ but rather, ‘hey, tell me what’s going on…’ One of my good friends is Hugh McGowan who is the first head of the New York Police Department’s hostage negotiation team. A television station did a documentary on him called Talk to Me. As hostage negotiators, they have to listen carefully, and be respectful to the person they are negotiating with – no matter how difficult – and no matter how deplorable their actions are. That’s the only way to resolve situations peacefully. This isn’t easy – it’s hard to respect someone who is being really challenging, or who is committing an act you cannot reconcile, but you must realise that the respect you pay isn’t for them, it’s for you. You are trying to achieve a goal through negotiating. The person you are negotiating with may have done awful things, but you still have a goal, and you are still trying to get somewhere. You have to manage your own emotions, and be acutely aware of emotional intelligence. It’s a very short trip between meeting your goal and causing harm when you’re dealing with difficult people who have often done really awful things, but in the back of your mind, you need to remember that while it may feel like you are rewarding someone deplorable, you are working towards your goal and that you have a job to do. You have to find a way to achieve that outcome and that goal.

Q: What can negotiation teach us about building (and fixing) relationships, particularly at a time when the world feels so polarised?

[Joshua Weiss]: If we think about political discourse, part of the problem is that people go into conversations trying to change the other person’s mind. That doesn’t work. People change their own minds (or not) based on what they’ve learned, and if they’re willing to take on new information that makes them question their previous notions and ideas. Our goal should not be to change the other person’s mind, but rather to learn something about what’s going on for them. How did they get to a particular position? Why do they support X? There’s often a very logical reason – for example – maybe they grew up in the American Midwest, and their goal was to have the American dream working at the plant, with a house and a white picket fence. Then X group engaged in globalisation, the jobs went overseas, and now that person is unemployed and that is why they now support Y politician or group who are promising to bring those jobs back. Whatever I think about the promises, I can certainly understand why they might have arrived at that position.

Stories and storytelling are an important part of negotiation. Story can shift people… stories are universal, they are part of culture and everyone relates to story and narrative. Stories have moral values and lessons. If we’re disagreeing and I say, ‘hey, let me share a story with you about why I feel this way, or why my reasoning is this way…’ I can often see the other negotiator change – people find themselves in a story and are much more willing to listen and engage. Stories have a real power to them, and we don’t use them nearly enough to engage with people – especially in difficult moments.

A lot of studies have shown that we can recall stories much more effectively than data – so when people get really stuck or challenged, they may be able to think of a story they might share with the other to move a conversation to a more cooperative place.

The most successful negotiators I’ve worked with know strategy and tactics, but also know how to humanise the process and engage with the other. There’s a lot to be said for being likable and finding ways to connect with people. When I sit down to negotiate with someone at their office, one of the first things I do is to find a point of connection… maybe they have a photo of their kids and I say, ‘hey, I see you have kids, how old are they? What do they do?’ – people often say they don’t like small talk, and chit chat- but it’s important, it humanises the process. It’s hard to be difficult and challenging with someone that you like,

Q: What are the key things you think we can start to apply in our own lives from your experience in negotiation?

[Joshua Weiss]: The key thing you need to do is learn how to move from positions to interests. How to really get down to what drives behaviour. It’s like being an investigative journalist – you have to read between the lines – you have to understand the non-verbals that are associated with negotiation. There are a lot of misnomers and myths out there about non-verbal behaviour that get people in trouble. You want to learn the correct way of doing things.

You also have to keep coming back to the notion of creative problem solving rather than compromise. Compromise is lazy, it’s easy. Anyone can say, ‘we’re stuck, let’s just split the difference and move on…’ You’re much better off delving into trying to really understand what matters, those interests, and then engaging a creative problem solving process. 9 times out of 10, if you do that, you’ll reach an agreement and get somewhere. If you stay wedded to compromise, you might reach an agreement, but it may not be the best one possible, and it may not be robust.

You also have to be emotionally intelligent, and be a good communicator. Showing emotion doesn’t have to blow-up a process! It’s quite reasonable to explain to another negotiator that you are feeling frustrated, and that you thought the negotiation was going to go differently…

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.