We got into a spirited discussion yesterday during day 3 of my negotiation course. The issue? Agenda control.
We all agree that if you can control the agenda in a negotiation, you are better off. That is the easy part. And there are a host of tactics that you can use to achieve it. They are also easy enough to understand — though sometimes hard to do. But how hard do you fight for agenda control? That question is more interesting.
In my view, you should fight hard for this. But I would be the first to admit that you only can do this when you have a clear idea why you are negotiating in the first place. In other words, you don’t fight hard for stuff that you are not sure you need.
And that, of course, takes us back to how you find the answer to the question ” why you are there”? It is a strategic issue, a hugely important one, and one that causes great confusion.
Unfortunately, there are not a lot of great books out there about how to deal with this type of strategic challenge. Why not? Perhaps it is because it is a lot easier to write about how to do stuff than how to think about stuff. Thinking is hard work — especially when you know it has consequences, like making a commitment to a course of action over time. That can be scary.
This is an area where gamification can help. In a game setting, our fear of mistakes is lower and our engagement in process is higher. And in this setting, thinking can actually be fun.
Csikszentmihalyi argues that this is the path to finding meaning in life. Not by achieving (winning the game and retiring early) but by finding and savoring optimal experiences in determined play. Not that winning is a bad thing, but it is not the only thing. How you get there means a hell of a lot too.
Well, this is old fashioned stuff, actually. I was reminded of how old fashioned when I watched the Hornblower series on TV several weeks ago. Young Hornblower is a compelling character because of his commitment to learning that produces results of a special kind. Sure, he is clever. But more important, he embodies a type of commitment where his cleverness is plainly useful. So, the other characters tend to admire him even when he defeats them in combat. Going back to the ruckus in my negotiation class — despite all the challenges, Hornblower remains first and foremost, in firm control of his agenda and that is what makes his story compelling.
But Hornblower is actually a modern incarnation of this sort of story. Ulysses comes to mind as a much earlier prototype. The hero who earns the title — so much more compelling than Achilles who was merely born to dominate.
You might protest — this is adventure story stuff! We don’t go around killing monsters in modern life. Why is this relevant? Before concluding that I am advocating a sort of “blood and guts” approach to life, you might consider that it was the crowning achievement of James Joyce to take Ulysses as his model for the modern thinking hero, Mr. Bloom. Art as adventure? Why not?
At the end of the day the key question here is whether this sort of chit chat helps create and nurture a learning environment. My view is that we vastly increase the chances for learning when we invest in strategic thinking first. But then again, that’s just me.
And BTW, there is one more factor that bears mention. That is the threat of abuse. Sad to say, people do abuse each other and they do it a lot. By abuse, I mean they manipulate, dominate, etc. All the things that rob the victim of his or her individuality (call it dis-empowerment). I am not talking about being tough on a given issue. I am talking about a strategy to create a dominant/submissive relationship.
The typical abuse pattern starts with a seduction of some sort and then moves to isolating the victim and introducing a threat. It is not a pretty picture. Abusers are most successful with people who don’t have a strong agenda (like young folks). Indeed, you can think of abuse as taking away the victim’s individual agenda. It can be very subtle. And the way to prevent it? Fight like hell for your agenda. That makes the seduction, isolation and threat much, much harder to accomplish. Abusers sense this and move on, leaving you free to build your networks with less distraction.