Icy Atmosphere

Nov. 1, 1995
Hone your skills as a negotiator so that you can thaw out frigid relationships between warring colleagues

Hone your skills as a negotiator so that you can thaw out frigid relationships between warring colleagues

Ruth Davidhizar

The management of conflict is an important part of a professional`s job. Hygienists encounter situations where they do not agree with those they work with in a dental office. The ability to negotiate with others (or help two other people negotiate) is a critical skill that, if mastered, will enable productive work to continue in a congenial atmosphere.

Negotiation is a communication process that seeks a solution when consensus cannot be reached on an issue. Negotiation involves a give-and-take on issues in order to arrive at a solution. The solution may not be optimal, but it is acceptable to all involved. In negotiation, the emphasis is on accommodating differences to allow people to work together productively. Negotiation can concern just about any matter that is not written in stone.

The last point is not always remembered by people who prefer to deal in absolutes. However, in reality, there are very few "absolutes." Most things are negotiable. Even when positions appear completely unyielding, a skillful negotiator can identify a compromise and avoid ongoing conflict.

If the dental office has a supervisor, it is especially important that this person be skillful in negotiation in order to resolve differences between personnel.

Some people consider negotiation to be a game. In most cases, negotiation is better described as very serious work and an artistic means of accomplishing goals. Whether negotiation occurs between individuals or groups, successful negotiation is when both sides perceive a win-win solution.

The purpose of negotiation is that both sides can win, even though it may not necessarily be equally. In other words, when negotiation is done successfully both parties feel satisfied, that they have both won, and that the relationship will continue on a positive basis. Negotiations involve persuading the other party, not alienating them. Negotiators should use logic, which shows an awareness for the other party`s intelligence.

Power, time, and information

A satisfactory negotiation can be contrasted with an unnegotiated dispute or one not successfully negotiated. In an unnegotiated dispute, both parties remain negative about the dispute, feel there has been a win-lose solution, and face the future with anger. A health-care team`s ability to work together is restricted, and employee morale is negatively influenced, making the work environment unpleasant. It results in tardiness, unexcused absences, and in some cases, resignations. When people working in an office lack the art of negotiation, or lack the resources or willingness to invite someone else to negotiate for them, disputes can lead to a negativistic and even hostile situation.

Three key elements determine a successful outcome in a negotiation - power, time, and information. It is crucial for the individual to carefully assess each of these factors prior to the actual negotiation, rather than jumping into a dispute which may quickly turn into an argument.

Power. Negotiation is most common when opposing viewpoints are dealing from a perceived position of equal strength and power. An example would be two hygienists who have equal levels of authority. However, if an impasse is reached, a supervisor who has authority over the hygienists may need to negotiate a resolution, such as who will put in the extra hours when another staff member plans a vacation after patients have been booked. In this case, the supervisor must be well briefed by both sides and should know what latitude there is for making a resolution. A supervisor has the power to impose threats and/or rewards that can facilitate resolution.

Time. The amount of time is critical. A supervisor who is attempting to negotiate a resolution to a dispute needs to understand the time constraints of all involved parties and use this advantageously. Both parties will likely have some form of a deadline whether it is real or perceived.

It is also important to know when to start the negotiation. Who are the key players and when can they be brought together? Should people have time to cool off over a weekend, or is it best to call the two arguing staff members into an office to discuss the matter at once?

Information. Information is also important to a successful negotiation. Being well versed in the subject under dispute can give the negotiating supervisor more alternatives to explore. It is helpful to know the value associated with the matter under dispute, and whether the value is sentimental, economic, or time- or ego-invested. A shift in negotiating power may occur because one side has more information than the other. Failure to collect adequate information and beginning the discussion prematurely can injure a supervisor`s chance of feeling that a fair solution has been reached.

For the negotiator, knowledge is power. The information ensures she has bargaining power. Negotiators who have done their homework will be less likely to be caught off-guard by lack of information.

The fine art of negotiation

Besides identifying the power, time, and information factors described above, preplanning for negotiation also involves the clarification of goals and the short-term and long-term consequences of the various outcomes. It is very possible that the consequences of certain negotiations are so negative that there is only one appropriate option. The wise supervisor should have options in mind when negotiating.

Consideration should also be given to trade-offs that are possible in a situation. Trade-offs are often future gains that are accomplished in a conflict. The wise supervisor will possibly consider trading something today for something tomorrow as a means to reach a satisfactory negotiation.

The supervisor should also look for and acknowledge hidden agendas. What are the covert intentions of the negotiation. Supervisors need to acknowledge their own hidden agendas so that they are not paralyzed if the agenda is discovered or used against them in the negotiation.

The principal parties may be obvious, but it is still useful to carefully define:

- Who are the negotiators?

- How many negotiators are there?

- What is the nature of each party`s stake in the negotiation?

- What is the complexity of the issue being negotiated?

- How visible are the transactions to others?

If one person represents a group, it may be important to bring a negotiated proposal back to the group before a final decision can be made.

Part of preparation for negotiation is learning about the personalities of the people with whom the supervisor is negotiating. Knowledge of personality traits can assist the supervisor to use appropriate techniques.

Putting your cards on the table

Avoid placing blame. It is important to not belabor how the conflict occurred or identify whose fault it is. Rather than an attitude of assigning blame, the focus should be on resolving the conflict and preventing reoccurrence in the future.

Start tough. Starting from a position of extreme is often useful in negotiation, since this leaves room to bargain. For example, a supervisor may make an opening move by stating an extreme position which is well above what is desired. This can be followed by a series of offers, counter offers, and elaboration that is nothing more than a smoke screen. Starting tough allows for concessions to be made. It is harder to escalate demands in a negotiation than to make concessions.

The bottom line. The supervisor must know what the bottom line is. However, it should never be stated prematurely. A supervisor will quickly lose credibility if a bottom line is stated but then becomes impossible to do. If the supervisor reaches a bottom line and no negotiation can be made, it may be necessary to say that an impasse has been reached and it is not possible to negotiate further.

When possible, the supervisor should let everyone "sleep on it" and have time to reconsider. The door should be left open for further negotiation. The negotiator should be careful to not allow the other party to lose face and thus damage hope of future negotiations.

Emphasize agreements. In the negotiation process, it is helpful to emphasize points of agreement that both parties share. For example, two hygienists may mutually agree that the goal is the best possible situation for the patient. Agreement about the goal may refocus the conversation to what each desires and how both can work at it from different perspectives but collaboratively.

In addition, emphasize the importance of both parties working together. Without satisfactory resolution, all are losers. Voicing willingness to collaborate and work together is helpful for both sides. Disagreements that have been resolved in the past may be noted to reinforce that resolution is possible.

Be self-assured. Negotiation is psychological as well as verbal. The effective negotiator always looks calm and self-assured. Having adequately prepared for the negotiation significantly contributes to a feeling of self-assurance and facilitates the communication of self-confidence.

Clarify word meanings. Terminology can be a problem during a negotiation since it is common for people to use different words for the same thing, or the same words for different things. Clarification of terms and actions should come early in the interaction and may significantly contribute to successful negotiation.

Listening to the other side. Listening is a very important skill for the negotiator who wishes to achieve a win-win negotiation. Both parties need to feel their point of view has been heard and is being taken seriously.

The successful negotiator should also listen for concrete and specific items that can serve as potential trade-offs. In order to obtain a win-win negotiation it is important for each party to hear and understand the other`s background, needs, goals, and purpose.

Take a break. If either party becomes angry or tired during the negotiation, breaks are appropriate and necessary. Successful negotiation will not occur if either party is enraged or fatigued. A bathroom break, a Coke break, or even a break until the next day can allow both parties time to regroup.

Adeptness at the art of negotiation is an important skill for professionals, particularly for supervisors in today`s health-care agencies. While much negotiation is done informally over coffee, for example, negotiation may also be formal with significant issues at stake.

Negotiations should be viewed as a process not a procedure. There is no regular series of steps which can ensure success. However, understanding the negotiation process places all parties in a better position to negotiate.

Ruth E. Davidhizar, RN, is an assistant dean and chairperson of nursing at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana.