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Improving Negotiating Skills

Keith Stacey
Improving Negotiating Skills

“How can I negotiate successfully with teenagers?” is a common question asked on negotiation training courses! 

There is generally laughter following the question, but the frequency of this request underlines the importance of this key formative relationship. Before we offer any advice, let us ponder the following. 

How is it that a healthy seventeen-year-old with superb hand eye coordination cannot butter a sandwich?  

The conversation runs something like this, “Dad can you butter me a sandwich?” Mum replies, “Why can’t you do it yourself?” And of course, there’s a reason.  

“Every time I do it the bread splits.” End result - a parent butters the sandwich. 

This failed negotiation is repeated regularly in many forms in many households. So successful have teenagers been that their parents are increasingly taking this brilliant strategy into the workplace. We should be indebted to Professor Gary Martin of the Australian Institute of Management for naming this behaviour. In an article in the Hobart Mercury, he called it the process of weaponising incompetence! How apt a description for this successful strategy. 

As Professor Martin points out, we have all experienced colleagues in the workplace who have never mastered the simple functions of the photocopier, the coffee machine or the dishwasher: a quick measure of organisational competence or the number of people who can place a call on hold or transfer the call to another number.  

The reason this incompetence spreads like a virus through an organisation is that it works. Others pitch in and do the copying, spread the sandwich and transfer the call. In negotiating terms, bad behaviour has been rewarded. We are actually training people to be repeat offenders. It is therefore not surprising that it has spread throughout entire organisations? 

How do we stop people ‘weaponising incompetence’ at home and at work. The first step is to recognise what it is - a subtle power play. I can get you to do what I find boring or distasteful. My time is more important than yours and I can’t be bothered with trivial things.  

The answer is to simply state, “I’m busy, you’ll need to learn to do it yourself.” On the other hand, negotiation is a trading process and the request could be traded. For example, a parent could say; 

 “If you load the dishwasher, I will spread your sandwich.” 

And the colleague could say, “If you proofread my submission, I’ll do your photocopying.” For the teenager on the floor, the price may be too high, and they may forget the sandwich. If the trade is fair, they learn that in order to get what they want, they may need to invest something of themselves. 

Of course, an alternative solution is to help teach the ‘incompetent’ person a level of negotiating skill. This investment may prevent the problem from recurring. 

Keith Stacey
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