Negotiation is Not About Winning

10 Jul

At the 2018 Omicron Delta Kappa Biennial National Convention and Leadership Conference, the members of the National Advisory Council introduced our Society’s Campus Conversations initiative. Under the leadership of Michelle Burke, 2016-18 Chair, the NAC introduced a program that is designed to assist circles in creating a safe and productive space for sharing ideas, perspectives, and plans for action on polarizing topics. It is designed to build relationships among leaders across the breadth of a community and encourage collaboration to address larger societal problems. More details about this program will be posted on the O∆K website throughout the summer.

Steven Fulmer, who gave the opening keynote address at the 2014 convention, recently published this essay on negotiation which explains the necessity of civility, collaboration, and negotiation in advancing organizations and communications.

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In my consulting and coaching business, I’ve been giving a lot of consideration to the concept of negotiation. In deeply exploring the topic, I thought it essential to revisit a lesson I learned in one of the titular books on the subject, “Getting To Yes,” written in the 1980s by two Harvard University professors. This is the most powerful lesson I took away from their wisdom:

“If you want to succeed at negotiation, you’ve got to be able to state your opponent’s position better than your opponent. Not only does this strategy give us a leg up rhetorically, it actually gets to the heart of what negotiation is all about: finding common ground. Finding something you can both agree on. Using this strategy, you can actually understand where your ‘opponent’ is coming from, and move forward with empathy — rather than simply a dogged determination to ‘win.’”

All of us feel the same way. We internally think, “That the other person just can’t see it the way I see it. If they only knew, they wouldn’t argue like this.” Incumbent upon us is the responsibility to do that research for the opponent, to actually reach that level of understanding of their position, not in order to out-argue them — but in order to more deeply understand and empathize with them. If you go into that level of learning with the mindset of undermining their perspective, you’re missing the point entirely.

Nelson Mandela said, “If you speak to a person in a language they understand, you speak to their head. But if you speak to a person in their language, you speak to their heart.” If you want to find common ground in negotiation, you have to speak to their heart. You have to actually see things the way they see them. The risk is, you may find areas in their position that make sense, that you believe, and areas — dare I say it — where they’re right. Imagine for a moment being able to articulate their position as well as, if not better, than them, and in a moment of uncontrollable excitement they blurt out “Yes!!! You get it! Yes! That’s exactly what I’m saying!”

What if? I’ll tell you what. They can no longer say “you’re not listening” or “you don’t understand.”

The problem with most of us is we never want to go there; we want to articulate the difference without going the distance to see where we connect. That’s part of the reason I believe our nation is so divided. Let’s face it: No one is absolutely right; no one is without fault.

If you want to reach common ground — if you want to ‘win’ at negotiation — you’ve got to win together. You’ve got to understand and connect with their perspective, not just try and convince them of yours.


Steven Fulmer was the opening keynote speaker at the O∆K’s 48th Biennial Convention and Centennial Celebration held in June 2014 in Lexington, Virginia. He is the author of “Leadership Just Got Personal” and his website may be found at 

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