Hearthunting as headhunting - a lesson in negotiations

From an old blog

The total in and outbound email counter was at 1546 when negotiations resumed two weeks ago and had advanced another 134 clicks when they collapsed for the ninth time, last night**. For all the intensity yet utter lack of success to show for it, you would think that I have been attempting to bring peace to the Middle East instead of simply trying to meet a woman that I first encountered 18 months ago in cyberspace. Certainly anyone looking at this picture would think that there's plenty wrong with it, and there is. But to understand why the process, which lurches along like a wagon on square wheels, endures at it does you'd have to know more about the history and psychology of the participants than I am free to describe. Thus in that regard let me just say that each side brings some powerful strengths as well as a few personal foibles to the table, and that on one level, the mechanical level, the result has been an interesting exercise in protracted negotiations.

Whether the present, broken down state of affairs signifies another serious though temporary hiatus, or whether they indicate a permanent, irremediable breach, is at this point impossible to say. Time alone will tell. But it does seem that one side – my side – has hardened its position, and I don't mind explaining why. But first some negotiation theory.

Acquiring and maintaining a favorable posture throughout a negotiation is difficult. To begin with, you must be passionate about the issue, or at least you must if the issue is a complex one, because without passion you will not be able to dig down to the reserves of energy required to endure to the end of the process. In other words, out of shear exhaustion you'll eventually cave.

Second, you must have conviction, that is you must not possess but be possessed of a certainty that the outcome that you're seeking is the best possible outcome, not only for yourself but for the other party as well. That they don't see it that way is of course a given, for if they did then there would already be a compromise in place that is much to your liking. However it's the conviction, continuously displayed on your part which through the introduction of self-doubt into the validity of the other party's position, has a corrosive effect that helps weaken their steel and bend their will to your own. Or to put it more diplomatically, helps them see things your way. Naturally this is not the conviction of either a lunatic or a selfish egotist, but the certitude of someone who has rationally thought through all the possibilities, followed all the tangents, and in the end has come to the unshakable conclusion that his considered view is the most reasonable view. This casts you as a True Believer, and True Believers usually cave in last.

Third, it helps to be smart. While high general intelligence doesn't guarantee success, it doesn't hurt to have it on your side if you can get it. Unfortunately, though no dummy, the home team doesn't have a relative advantage here and it's about fifty years too late to acquire it.

Fourth, it also helps to have a personality of an innate diplomatic type, i.e. one whose primary form of intelligence is naturally rooted in diplomacy, not tactics, logistics, or strategy. Again in the present case, being a strategist and not a diplomat, I don't have this advantage either. The other side does.

Fifth, a thorough knowledge of the other party's condition is essential as it's the awareness of their position and your position that generates the conviction that works in your long term favor. One of the advantages of extended negotiations is that during the process your knowledge gaps get filled in. Of course, if they're paying attention, theirs will too.

Sixth, personal integrity is absolutely crucial. No one's going to bargain faithfully and at the conclusion surrender anything of personal importance if the someone that they're dealing with is someone who they perceive as in any way duplicitous. Thus an all-cards-face-up-on-the-table approach, die-cut into one's character is not a hindrance but an advantage, and it is one that I possess.

Seventh is (and this one is tricky, which is why I've left it to last) the ability to perceive and exploit power. Frankly, in my experience power is better used to start negotiations than conclude them, the reason being that you want the outcome to stick. If the terms are coerced, then the deal will come apart once the two sides have left the table and the exploited party is again free to exercise their autonomy. To a recruiter, companies within their domain fall into three categories: those that they don't yet know about; those who've agreed to do business with them, thus becoming clients to whom they are loyal; and those who have refused to do business with them, thus becoming potential targets. Most companies do not realize the threat that a recruiter who makes it a point to empty their parking lot represents to them. While there can be a time to make a recalcitrant company aware of this - like when they're delinquent in paying an invoice - it's usually better to never let them know their vulnerability, especially during negotiations. Yet as disadvantageous as a strong power position may counterintuitively be, there is a kind of power that must be always on tap, alluded to in a principle of the type TKD, or Time Kills Deals. I frequently voice it around the office this way: "When you want the deal more than they want the deal, you're in trouble."

What this means in the context of a negotiation is fairly obvious - that you've assigned a higher value to the outcome than the other party has, which working on 100% commission and without benefits as head hunters do, is easy to do. But the effect can be severe in that it means the recruiter has taken a powerful tool out his kit and cast it away. The name of that tool is Deadlock.

Most people are fearful of deadlock because they are fearful of not obtaining what they want. Thus they will bargain to a bad conclusion rather than to no conclusion. While to deadlock means to not gain your objective, it also means to preserve what you started with. And the more valuable you perceive what you bring to the table, the more likely you are to not come away with a bad deal. Either you will gain the outcome which your conviction has affirmed and your passion has allowed you to pursue to the end, or you will at least come away with your self-respect intact, together with the potential to live and learn and bargain again another day.

Where the personal negotiations recently deadlocked will go from here, if anywhere, I do not know. But I do know where they will not go; they will not go on without what I'm seeking, which is a simple meeting of two reasonable and responsible people, occurring sometime soon. To let this go on any longer in any other way is simply mentally unhealthy, for both of us.


**For the record the two parties first entered into discussions on March 25th of '06. They then left the table for periods of extended duration on June 9th, July 19th, September 11th, January 25th, April 4th, June 3rd, and July 18th, after which all dialogue ceased until Oct 6th, only to fall silent again fourteen days later.

Updated final tally on reaching permanent deadlock and total collapse, 12-15-07: 1907.

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