“How can we?”: The essence of collaboration

Principles of negotiation, conflict management and influencing are related, in that they draw from the same well of human psyche.

There are five basic approaches which reflect the importance placed on concern for the outcome versus concern for the future relationship. In articles and books you will find the five basic approaches labelled something like:

article - how can we - relationship and outcome

  • Collaborate
  • Compromise
  • Defeat
  • Accommodate
  • Avoid.

The preferred outcome, a large majority of times, is collaboration. Collaboration aims at achieving the interests of all sides, rather than acceding to the other side’s position or imposing your position.

Collaboration is not, however, the same as compromise. A simple tale illustrates the difference.

Two children wanted an orange. One wanted to make a glass of orange juice. The other wanted the zest of the orange to add to her mum’s favourite cake recipe. However, each articulated their position as wanting the orange. Dad, ever the arbiter, convinced the children that compromise is the art of negotiation and suggested that they cut the orange in half. Being the recipient of half of what they wanted somewhat satisfied each child but did not deliver to them what they really wanted. One did not have as much orange juice as they would have liked and the other had the choice of halving the recipe or reducing the flavour in the cake. If they had only expressed their interests; “I want a glass of orange juice” and “I want to make a cake with the orange zest”, they could have, through collaboration, satisfied each of their interests fully.

The way conflicts, negotiations and our ability to influence transpire depends much on the language we use. It sounds simplistic but language is very powerful. Coupled with congruent tone and pace of voice and body language, the right language can directly influence what path our interaction takes.

For example, using an “I” statement automatically places us somewhere in the top half of the matrix of concern for the outcome versus concern for the relationship. An “I” statement takes the form of; “When you [..??.] I feel like […??] and what I’d like is [..??.]”

Using a statement which starts with “You”, automatically places us on the left hand side of the matrix. For example, “You need to…”, “You want to…”, “You should…” all presuppose that we know what the other thinks or feels. It is a bit like a red rag to a bull. We may well be on a path to getting the outcome we need, but the relationship is already on the back foot.

When I managed a manufacturing plant in Sydney, our tactical approach – with the Storeman and Packers Union in particular – lurched from avoidance (we overlooked workplace indiscretions ranging from failure to obey lawful directions to fraud, constantly) to accommodation (giving in to outrageous requests such as coffee breaks every hour) to defeat (demanding changes in well established work practices). Whenever we were taken to the Industrial Relations and Arbitration Commission, of course, compromise was the only fare on the menu.

We always used inappropriate language until one day we asked ourselves, “How can we keep the plant open with such poor productivity?” The answer was that we needed to invest in new equipment and return our work practices to those described in the relevant industrial award. We then asked our employees and their union delegates, “How can we keep the plant open? We are willing to invest in new plant and equipment and training”. We asked our board, “How can we keep the plant open? We are willing to be assertive, not aggressive and manage the plant professionally”. We maintained that spirit of collaboration with our employees, union representatives, arbitration commission staff, board members, government departments and ministers and even the media over what was a difficult six week period. We came to a resolution which was collaborative because we kept our language simple and direct, always looking for a solution that fulfilled common interests.

“How can we?” is the essence of collaboration. It reframes issues away from opposing positions to common interests. For instance, in a negotiation to buy an electrical appliance costing thousands of dollars, “How can we make sure I do not go over my budget and you make a sale that meets your need for a reasonable margin”, opens up possibilities of payments over time, bolstering margin through additional purchases, which may have been made elsewhere, or such things as floor stock as possible solutions. Whereas, “Your price is too high” and “That’s my best offer” often results in a negotiation that is a stalemate.

“How can we?” focuses on a solution (How), action (Can) and collaboration (We) in three short words. It places us at the top right hand corner of the matrix automatically. The trick is when to use it. Whilst it is the most powerful phrase I know of for use in negotiation, conflict management and influencing people, it is not always appropriate to use at the beginning of a discussion.

To be most effective, “How can we?” is used when we are reasonably sure that we have ascertained our own and the other side’s interests from their initial positions. To accomplish this requires the use of many open questions to understand and closed questions to verify. We may even need to ask some scenario building questions such as, “Would it be helpful if..?” to flush out whether we are dealing with an interest or a position.

Collaboration is, most often, the most useful technique for resolving differences. Using the appropriate language is as important as your intent in achieving a collaborative outcome.

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