Successfully memorializing on paper the terms of a relationship between parties is one of the most critical yet challenging skills that a leader can possess. It requires communication skills, an in-depth understanding of the other person’s position, a well-defined set of expectations at the beginning of the process, and the unwavering ability to keep your eye on the finish line.
There is a fundamental difference between “winning” and “beating your opponent.” First, look across the table. In the fire service, your opponent is often a person who is wearing the same patch on his or her shoulder. Too often, negotiations (regardless of what you are trying to reach an agreement on) end up being a testosterone-filled exercise in winning and losing. This type of transactional interaction may work effectively in industries where the parties are not required to work with each other on a regular basis; such incidental or occasional interactions may not be affected by the brawling that goes on across a negotiating table. But in the fire service, the parties at the negotiating table often leave the room and then must provide service together.
I have witnessed the fallout from bone-crushing verbal battles over hard issues that spill over into the day-to-day lives of emergency responders. Such epic clashes have the potential to affect the core of an organization. A friend of mine recently took the job as a fire chief in a department where the city and its firefighters had not been able to reach an agreement on a labor contract for many years. Within three months, he facilitated an agreement that will guide the relationship between labor and management for the next several years. How does that happen? Sometimes a new chief gets a honeymoon period, a gesture of goodwill by his or her boss to help establish the basis for a productive relationship. Other times, economic factors permit a break in the logjam. But often, in situations where long-standing disputes have become intractable, the key to reaching success is learning how to respect the history of the relationship without owning it. In other words, it is important to not buy into the underlying tension by adopting it as a default position on entering the room.
Love and hate are incredibly powerful emotions, but they are not the opposite of one another. Wait. What? The opposite emotion to hatred is not love - it’s indifference. Think about it: How many times have you said, “I really hate that person,” as opposed to, “I have no opinion about that person at all”? There is very little that firefighters are indifferent about. The point is, when the negotiation transitions from “What can we achieve?” to “I want to beat this person,” the entire effort is permanently and irrevocably undermined. Emotions cloud decision making. This is an actual technique employed by individuals who perceive they are “losing.” They will try to draw their “opponent” into an emotional argument or, worse, lie in the tall grass waiting to undermine the final decision with an emotional appeal to the masses. Such attacks can be deadly, but only if leaders allow themselves to be distracted and fail to respond dispassionately.
There is also a fundamental difference between waiting to speak and listening. Leadership benefits from the latter despite the natural tendency of most individuals to tend toward the former. Waiting to speak naturally implies that the speaker has already formed an opinion about the person’s position instead of hearing what is being articulated. Hearing what is being said and, as importantly, what is not being said can provide critical clues to what is significant to the person sitting across the table from you. You must want to listen and suppress your own assumptions about what you think the other person is going to say either before or as he is saying it. Waiting to speak can have the unintended consequence of missing an opening for compromise.
Perhaps the most important point is to always keep your eye on the finish line ... and beyond. It is a natural tendency of the human psyche to have a long memory when you get humiliated, lying in wait for the chance to seek revenge. Engage in negotiations with honesty and respect. Being the smartest person in the room does not demand that you prove it.