The next time you board a plane, ask your pilot where he learned how to navigate stormy weather whilst in flight. More than likely, he went through hours upon hours of training dedicated to teaching pilots to handle thunderstorms, turbulence, and the various unknowns that take place at 10,000 metres. You would be rather displeased to hear that your pilot has not, in fact, been professionally trained in handling potentially dangerous situations, and that instead he has learned how to handle the plane only from video games and reading books about pilots. Negotiation similarly entails handling the more turbulent side of business – there is no way of knowing how the opposing party will react to proposals and suggestions or what kinds of storms will be weathered throughout the process of negotiation.

Just like the actions of a pilot during turbulent weather can determine the safety of a flight, so can the process of negotiations determine the future of a business. We negotiate by habit in both friendships and business relationships, just like we drive more slowly and use headlights in the rain, but is this really enough to ensure the best results from a negotiation? I have found that often times, the shortcuts we take to make decisions can be detrimental to our relationships when they cause us to say something that perpetuates conflict rather than solving it. The quick decision-making that might be appropriate in some situations can lead us to say or do things that do not reflect our intentions and desires in a productive manner. Rather than moving a negotiation forward, this can halt or reverse the progress entirely.

This is the reason that I start each course and project by asking participants where they learned to negotiate. Answers I have heard include “my father”, “television and movies”, “on the job”, or even the ubiquitous “I don’t know”. While undoubtedly useful sources for practising skills and learning examples, it is doubtful that these sources are able to provide the complete skill set necessary to ensure that negotiations progress in the most constructive manner possible. Just like a pilot learns to fly a plane through all types of weather in a controlled and systematic environment, so should professionals learn to negotiate in order to ensure the best for businesses. So now I’m turning to you: where did you learn to negotiate? Could there have been a better way?

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By Ranse Howell

Ranse Howell is the Mediator and Consultant for The Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR).