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How To Talk Gooder
A quick word first1
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Talking with—not past—other parties at the table
The heart of a good conversation is mutual engagement. Just look at our cousins in the picture above.
To my eye, the one on the left seems to be asking for something, leaning in, with that open, supplicating hand. Maybe it’s for a favor. Maybe it’s for sympathy. The one on the right is leaning in, as well, eyes wide open, listening intensely even while doing childcare.
We don’t have audio here (and I wouldn’t understand the chatter if we did), but even in a still picture, I see their connection here, just as we all can recognize it when we happen to glance at a couple seated several tables away in a restaurant. (And looking elsewhere, we might spot others talking past each other—or not conversing at all.)
My HBS colleague, Alison Wood Brooks, studies the psychology of human conversation—why we say things we shouldn’t and don’t say what we should—and how we think and interact with others, particularly in the workplace.
She views conversation as an improvisational process. You may have an agenda, but you can’t script what others will feel, do, and say. To converse well, you must be nimble, attentive, and—if you’re negotiating—persuasive, all in real time.
This is what Alison teaches in her wildly popular MBA course, How to Talk Gooder in Business and in Life. You can get a taste of her work (and benefit from her advice) in a 30-minute video that’s now freely available to the public.
In her talk, Alison explains that conversation entails a “relentless stream of micro-decisions” at every turn of the interaction (though often we don’t recognize that we’re making choices). For example, should I be talking or listening now? How should I respond to their interruptions? Is this the time for changing the topic?
On that last question, Alison points to a barrier that gets in the way of making good topic choices: namely, the struggle to detect what others really want to discuss and what they want to avoid, for now at least.
One strategy for dealing with that is brainstorming possible topics beforehand. If it’s obvious that there’s a tough issue that’s going to come up negotiation, for instance, consider whether it’s better to warm up by addressing some easy issues first, or will the looming elephant in the room cast a shadow on the whole conversation?
Alison also emphasizes the importance of real-time reflection as the dialogue evolves. Her research shows that asking follow-up questions deepens engagement. That’s a topic we covered here in the April 6th article, “If You Don’t Ask . . .”
P.S. Her video was hosted by Wharton’s Behavior Change for Good Initiative, so you get to meet two other leading researchers who work in this field. One is Katy Milkman, author of How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You are to Where You Want to Be, just published this May. Also on board is McArthur Fellow Angela Duckworth, author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Both books are must-reads!
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