‘Being big enough to learn’

I have just returned from Francistown in Botswana where I conducted mutual gains negotiation training for union and management negotiators of a large mine. It is a course I have trained in many different countries on a number of continents, yet peoples’ traditional approaches to and experiences in negotiations are so similar. Our ‘default setting’ is to approach negotiations in a demanding, ‘less for you means more for me’ way. We don’t naturally think about or share what our underlying needs are and even less, give attention to what the underlying needs of the other party might be. And, the result of such negotiations is what negotiators in the Philippines refer to as the ‘Solomnic approach’ i.e. an uncomfortable compromise, rather than an outcome which enables parties to achieve maximum mutual gains.

What I notice is that people are prepared to settle for ‘half a baby’ because they are so steeped in their traditional positional approach and often cannot see anything wrong with it. (As a course participant in Armenia told me – “why should I change and why do you keep saying that it’s important to look at yourself and how you behave as a negotiator, I’m just fine as I am!”).

The other trap that we fall into is what’s called the ‘Negotiation Paradox’ which has us believing that the way to get what you want is to look tough and give the other side a hard time, and that trying to build consensus is for weaklings. Yet, it is the opposite which is true – that good negotiators are the ones who almost always get a good deal for the person across the table as well.[1]

What was interesting for me to observe when discussing this idea during the course in Botswana, was that the participants who show up as needing to appear tough (even in a training situation), disagreed with this proposition and believe good negotiators have to look and be tough and focus on what they want to get.  From a coach’s perspective, what it is interesting for me to notice is how an individual’s ‘negotiation narrative’ so closely mirrors his/her broader narrative i.e. the stories of who they are, who others are in their lives and how they act based on the story they ‘live in’.

The crux as I see and experience it, is that to make progress in the outer world of action (as a more effective negotiator), one cannot get away from doing the ‘inner work’ of enquiry and reflection. That it is not enough to acquire knowledge and skills in whatever discipline one is seeking to become more competent in. It is about engaging honestly and openly with what one brings to that role, whether it is of negotiator, teacher, coach, or leader – and this is in fact where ‘the work’ is much harder. It seems however that at both an individual and organisational level, the latter place is not the place we go, because of the emphasis on acquiring ‘hard’ knowledge and skills and our own assumptions that we will be more skilled by virtue of being able to do and know more of the technical ‘stuff’. Is it also, that we have a sense, whether conscious or not, that the ‘inner work’ entails discomfort and dislodgement?

I recently had first-hand experience of this when I attended a brilliant programme called ‘Leadership for Collective Learning and Action’ (LCLA). The purpose of the programme was to ‘introduce teams and leaders to skills and concepts which will enable them to work in the complex and unpredictable climate of organisations in a manner which promotes learning, creativity, effective action and decision-making, and which draws on collective intelligence’.[2]

I signed up for the programme based on my desire to increase my knowledge of and competence in using different tools and techniques which would enable me to step more confidently into organisational/team processes. A secondary objective for me was to be more aware of what would be required of me to play a meaningful and effective role in group processes, in my primary areas of practice, namely, coaching or mediation.

Working from the basis that it would all be about acquiring ‘hard skills’, I was surprised by how early in the LCLA programme, a sense of discomfort set in and how much I felt the need to be wrapped in a soft blanket. And I realised, that it was not mastering the tools and techniques that was causing the low grade anxiety, it was in fact the inner dialogue of doubt and uncertainty that triggered the discomfort – how are others perceiving me? How am I coming across? Am I living up to my own expectations? Am I making meaningful contributions? Am I feeling seen, heard and valued?

When confronted by these questions, are the answers that our personality provides us with generally positive and affirming? No, invariably they are not and as the voice of self-doubt gathers momentum, and starts to feel more like a choir than a single voice, the more difficult it is to stay fully present to the actual programme content.

Something I have recently discovered which I find very helpful in dealing with this kind of negativity and self-doubt are Byron Katie’s 4 questions of inquiry.[3] Katie talks about how we become attached to ‘suffering’ through our thought processes and that the antidote to ‘suffering’ is ‘inquiry’. Inquiry involves exploring and understanding the ‘thought behind the suffering’. Her questions are:

  • Is it true? I.e. the thought I am having about myself or someone else or a situation.
  • Can I absolutely know that it’s true?
  • How do I react when you think that thought?
  • Who would I be without the thought?

If I am able to work through these questions, and ease my grip on my ‘attachment to my suffering’, can I begin to let go of the negativity which has started to block my learning?  More than this, can I embrace this ‘inner work’ as an essential part of my learning and know that engaging with the discomfort and working through these struggles, will contribute to my development as a human being? And that this self-development, will ultimately impact more significantly on my ability to perform more masterfully in my role of negotiator, facilitator, coach, leader or whatever other role I play and which really matters to me?


[1] Susskind, McKearnan & Thomas-Larmer ‘The Consensus-Building Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide to Reaching Agreement’, Consensus Building Institute,  1991

[2] Leadership for Collective Learning and Action, (presented by Beth Jandernoa & Glennifer Gillespie), February 2013 Invitation

[3] Byron Katie, ‘Loving What Is’ Random House, 2002

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