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Everything is a negotiation!

Updated: Aug 13, 2020

I woke up and checked my phone for my deliverables of the day and there it flashed, “A workshop on negotiation with Joan Moon”. I was excited to get on board because negotiations would be a major component of my coursework at Oxford University in the coming fall and I was curious to know whether I was a good negotiator. After all, I knew perfectly well how to bargain at eateries, while buying vegetables, at my beloved Sarojini Nagar and most of the time at work. Little did I know that bargaining was different from negotiations and most of what I considered negotiation was just bargaining.

We were sent pre-reads titled “negotiating the apartment search”. This brought back all the sour summer memories of me running from pillar to post in Noida in search of a house. I was oftentimes turned down for my identity of being a Muslim that too a Kashmiri. I went back to reading the case and to my dismay, I found that someone else called Maryam went through the same ordeal of finding herself and her brother a flat. Most landlords on learning her surname would turn her down. With high craft and precision, the pre-read displayed how Maryam pre-emptively addressed all the biases and concerns which would lead to their rejection and then advanced her search for a landlord. She found ways to convince him of her responsible adult behaviour. It was a light read but an intense one.

I joined the workshop to learn and understand more. Joan Moon, our coach for the session, who works at Harvard University, dived into the basics of negotiations. Negotiations, according to her, could be used in both formal and informal settings which aim at settling differences, seeking mutual agreement, and creating trade-offs. She briefly spoke about broadening the perspective in the negotiation across stages and emphasized on negotiating throughout the process. We were introduced to certain terms which made the process of negotiation stand out from that of bargaining. An important thing to note is that bargaining limits itself to understanding what the other person demands, also called position. While negotiation is keen to know why they are asking for it, also called interest. And it is understanding the latter that solves most of the problems.

In Joan’s words, a mother tries to make a negotiation at home when both of her kids are fighting over an orange. Simplistically, she cuts the orange in two halves and hands it over to her children. Somehow, that does not solve the issue and she still finds the children fighting. Upon enquiring, she realizes that one wanted the zest and the other wanted just the fruit. It’s worth noting how counterintuitive her approach was despite her intention. One cannot fully engage the other side in a discussion about what they want until we understand why they want it.

We were allotted breakout rooms in groups of five to discuss Maryam’s negotiation on the apartment search. With a case analysis worksheet and a few terms, we collectively brainstormed and mapped Maryam’s negotiation process. For all of us our positions, interests and alternatives almost coincided with each other, but our BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) remained personal.

When I failed to find myself a house in Noida, I strategically started looking for a Hindu flatmate who could then further carry out our negotiation with the landlord. After a four month-long search, this approach seemed to work. My approach was quiet indistinguishable with Maryam’s who approached her issue calculatedly after sensing a pattern. We unconsciously were working on something called signalling and sequencing in negotiations. Both seminal concepts of negotiations critical to the success of reaching one. Signalling is a deliberate effort and intent to signal any specific interest, concern and expectation to the other party in a direct but a subtle manner. Sequencing is lining up of deals, events with the counterpart at every iteration to increase the odds of making their offer accepted. Maryam and I, taught by our experiences, got a hang of the art of signalling and sequencing thereby cracking good housing deals while our BATNA’s were different. (Pictured below are the author and her flatmate)

Three hours went by in a jiffy, hearts (LedBy’s version of super likes: Fellows hold up hand-drawn hearts at the camera during Zoom to “super like” a comment) cascaded through our computer screens and the workshop came to an end. I shut down my laptop, looked around and surprisingly found everything to be a result of negotiation.

Sahreen Shamim is an incoming graduate student at Oxford University and a 2020 LedBy Her Fellow

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