Daniel Shapiro: ‘Negotiating The Nonnegotiable’ At Work And At Home by [email protected]

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Daniel Shapiro, director and founder of the Harvard International Negotiation Program, has negotiated some of the most challenging conflicts with heads of state, corporate executives and even families. Shapiro recently joined us on the [email protected] show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111 to talk about his new book on the subject, Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts.

An edited transcript of the conversation with Daniel Shapiro follows.

[email protected]: I found it interesting that your book takes a look at both ends of the spectrum, both the personal and the professional. When it comes to resolving conflict in the office, a lot of the same types of incidents and issues arise at home and work that could be negotiated in the same kind of manner.

Daniel Shapiro: Yes, our research has shown that the underlying dynamics that make our conflicts so miserable — whether at work with a tough colleague or at home with a tough spouse — tend to be quite similar. The power of them might be more at work or at home, but the impact is just the same. It’s difficult.

[email protected]: You break it down into a very simple and straightforward point: Whether you’re talking about conflict in the office or conflict at home, the biggest common denominator is that both involve humans. And humans are still a very flawed species.

Daniel Shapiro: We are both a flawed species and an incredible species. How do you deal with these emotionally charged conflicts — with your board, with somebody at work, at home? On the one hand, fighting back doesn’t work, it just escalates the conflict. Two, ignoring the conflict doesn’t work because the conflict continues to fester. Three, and here’s the twisted part, even if you try to collaboratively work things out — with your spouse, with your tough teenager, at work — in emotionally charged conflicts, even that tends not to work. Because we’re not getting to the underlying dynamics that are at play, the underlying emotional forces that tend to drive us toward conflict.

[email protected]: What are those forces? What are people just missing that would enable them to resolve difficult conflicts?

Daniel Shapiro: Let me start with at least one example. In the book, I talk about a concept that my research has shown is quite powerful in any conflict, and I call it vertigo. Think about the most recent conflict that you’ve gotten into. You don’t need to tell me what it is — at home, at work. Vertigo is when you get so emotionally consumed in that conflict that you can think of nothing else other than that evil person who did not consult you before making that decision, or whatever the problem is. You go home after that long day of work, and yes, you are physically at home — your body is at home — but your mind is still racing about what happened at work. You are in vertigo. We all know the experience, but to give it a name empowers you to decide, do I want to go there, toward vertigo? Or do I want to try to have a collaborative, positive conversation here?

“These aren’t foolproof methods. I’m not saying these are all the answers, but this stuff does work.”

As an example, just last week I was working with Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East, and sharing with them some of the ideas of this new book, some of the new research, including this concept of vertigo. I got an email two days ago from one of the very senior players on one of the sides of the conflict. She said to me in that email, “I just got out of a meeting right now.” This was a meeting between sides, in fact. She said, “As I was there, in that meeting, I felt that tornado of vertigo moving toward me,” ready to sweep her away. She said, “I thought in my head, do I want to go there? Do I not?” She decided no, and she said it was an incredibly productive conversation. We all have that choice, whether it’s vertigo or some of these other research points in the book.

[email protected]: In some respects, taking a different approach ends up being the best path then, correct?

Daniel Shapiro: Absolutely. But it’s hard to do. Another concept that we’ve really worked to mine in the book is a concept that Sigmund Freud initially called the repetition compulsion. This is the idea that we tend to repeat the same dysfunctional patterns of behavior again and again and again and again, even though we’re shooting ourselves in the foot. You can send all of your employees to corporate training on negotiation. They come back from the training, and they think, “Oh, I’m much better.” Yes, they might be better for a day or two, but unless you deal with these underlying dynamics, your solidified and imprinted patterns of conflict resolution, unless you can deal with these and try and really work at them and change them, it’s lost money for your company.

[email protected]: You talk also in the book about the taboos that exist in the office, and can be in the family as well.

Daniel Shapiro: Yes, whether it’s the office or home, there are those issues that are socially prohibited from talking about. Yet it’s often those issues that are the ones that are driving so much of the dysfunction either at work or at home. In the home setting, everybody knows it, but nobody can talk about mom’s drinking problem. Or at work, everybody knows that there is dysfunction going on in that one department, but nobody dares tell the CEO or the senior executive for fear of getting socially punished in some way. Yet if you don’t talk about those issues, you’re suffering. It affects the bottom line.

[email protected]: You did an interesting experiment, which I want you to share because it was a rather unique tack in terms of trying to mitigate and work through what you call the Tribes Effect.

Daniel Shapiro: Yes, most senior business people think, “Ah, I’m immune to that stuff. I’m good at conflict resolution.” As you said at the beginning of our conversation, people are people; we are all human beings. There’s this exercise I did at Davos at the World Economic Forum. The first time I did it there was back in 2006. Forty-five global leaders come into the room. I divide them up into six groups. I ask them to create their own tribes at their tables — what are their values, what are their beliefs, so on. I ask them to dress up in their own tribal outfits. Literally, I have the greatest [stories for] blackmail in the world — a deputy head of state in that room with balloons on his head, VCs helping to create some of the most well known companies, and so on.

They create these six tribes, and then I get up in front of the room and say, let’s debrief the exercise. All of a sudden, the lights go completely black in this room, and into the room bursts this intergalactic

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