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Negotiation: Turn the Tide

Negotiation: Turn the Tide - Featuring Seth Freeman
Negotiation: Turn the Tide - Featuring Seth Freeman
“The paraphrase, praise, and probe technique provides a tool to structure intentional respect and kindness. The fundamental thing I teach my students is that the goal here is not to change someone's mind but to touch their heart and to be 3% more loving. It turns out that this is often one of the most effective ways to change somebody's mind eventually.”
Seth Freeman

Seth Freeman is an award-winning negotiation and conflict management professor at New York University and Columbia University. In his book, "15 Tools to Turn the Tide- A Step-by-Step Playbook for Empowered Negotiating," Professor Freeman provides practical tools to navigate conflicts effectively, guiding individuals to create value, strengthen relationships, and approach negotiations empathetically. 

Stephen Matini: When did you decide on your professional pursuit? Was it something you always knew or did it unfold over time?

SF: Well, as I often mention, I used to practice corporate law, but now I'm enjoying life. I was an unhappy corporate lawyer for six years. 

Through a series of life events, I found myself experimenting by teaching a class to paralegals on securities regulation. Nobody is eager to learn about securities regulation, so I made it a bit more enjoyable, and they loved it, and I loved it too. That was a revelation for me. I thought, "Okay, I'll do it again." 

Then, I thought, "Maybe I could teach corporate law," and again, positive feedback. Now, I have a stack of student reviews saying it was really great. So, I started pursuing it, which led me to Fordham Business School, where I taught.

SM: What do you think was missing at the time when you weren't enjoying your work?

SF: I believe I had to unlearn some things. I had this understanding that the purpose of work is just to work more, and that you can find interest in anything. So, you should identify whatever is enjoyable about it, find something you're reasonably okay with, and just do it. Don't worry about trying to find your calling or anything like that. All of that, in my experience, proved to be very unhelpful. I was chronically miserable, and I felt really bad about it.

I thought there must be something wrong with me because I find this work so boring and stressful, and I'm not very good at it. So, there must be something wrong with me. 

What I now realize is that Albert Einstein's remark is accurate. He said, "If you ask a fish to climb a tree, it's not going to do very well, but if you put him in the water, it'll swim brilliantly." That was me. 

I was definitely doing work that I really wasn't called to do. This idea of calling became a critical realization. What am I called to do? It takes some real introspection, prayer, and exploration. But, you know, 30 years later, I rejoice in this. The idea of retiring sounds awful to me because I just love doing this.

SM: Would you say it could have been possible for you as a younger professional to discover your direction earlier on?

SF: Personally, I'm very grateful I did not know, because that probably would have meant pursuing a PhD and engaging in obscure scholarship in a less prominent place. Perhaps I would have entered this field to some extent, but I wouldn't have been primarily teaching. My focus would have been mostly on scholarship, which I love as an avocation, but I wouldn't want it to be my primary focus. That's essentially what it means to be on a tenure track in academia. 

So, it was a real mercy for me to discover this indirectly—first getting a law degree, practicing, and realizing what I don't enjoy doing. It turns out that printed on the back of every law degree is a stamp that says "good for a second career in academia.”

For others, my recommendation would be to make small bets, try different things, and conduct informational interviews. These ultimately proved very valuable for me, along with understanding the meaning of having a vocation, if possible. That, I believe, would be my advice to others.

SM: Then you shifted your focus to conflict management and negotiation. What was it about that field that appealed to you?

SF: I took a vocational test when I was a corporate lawyer just to see if someone had any insights I might have missed. They said, "You have too many interests and abilities, so there won't be one subject or field that suits you. You'll need to build a three-legged stool or take on an enormous task, like world peace." 

It was a throwaway line, but here I am 30 years later, and it's a term I try to avoid whenever possible. World peace can be a cliche. However, the question of how we get along is remarkably rich and varied. You can bring any field of study to bear on it—the richness, depth, and practical usefulness of it.

I can walk into a kindergarten, the United Nations, or anything in between, talk about what I'm working on, and people say, "This is useful, this is interesting. Let me share my situation." As a result, I've found that it opens almost every door. Whether you're interested in psychology, history, politics, law, or economics, this subject covers all bases. That, I believe, is why it remains so fascinating for me.

Most importantly, the sheer joy of witnessing people go from fear or arrogance to finding a powerful yet gentle way to work together is just delightful. To see people create more peace, prosperity, and harmony—I never thought I could do that, and I can. What a difference that makes.

SM: Has our current state of getting along as people improved?

SF: One notable and astonishing development in your life and mine is that the world is currently faring better than ever before. In 1961, John Kennedy spoke of a global alliance in the north, south, east, and west that could secure a better life for all mankind against common enemies like tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself. This isn't a commentary on John Kennedy, but those goals seemed unattainable and lofty at the time.

Fast forward to today, and we discover that, despite some troubling headlines, conditions related to tyranny, poverty, disease, and war are actually better than at any time in human history. Two billion people have escaped extreme poverty in the last 20 years, deaths due to disease have declined, and literacy rates worldwide are higher than ever. Many diseases have been cured, and the list goes on and on—it's just not widely known.

If we consider all these aspects as part of the broader definition of peace, then things are in a better place than one could have ever imagined. Yes, there's still conflict and death due to war, as seen in events like Ukraine and the Middle East, and I don't intend to trivialize those issues. But overall, we are making progress.

Does that mean everything is perfect, and my job is obsolete? Absolutely not. Could it change tomorrow? Certainly. 

There are intriguing questions about why this progress is happening, and you might be familiar with Steven Pinker's book, "The Better Angels of Our Nature," where he discusses the decline in violence over the last 500 years. To illustrate, in the Middle Ages in Europe, the murder rate in most villages was around 70 per hundred thousand; today, it's two per hundred thousand. It's unbelievable how violent our ancestors' lives were, and we're not living that way now.

SM: It's impossible to read the news when all we hear is a celebration of negativity. Why do you think there's so much emphasis on the negative?

SF: My grandmother used to say, if being unhappy makes you happy, then be happy. There can be a tendency for us to gravitate towards what makes us unhappy. It might have something to do with mastering a story. 

We feel the need to master something disturbing or distressing, running toward it to learn and, in turn, not feel the fear anymore. On the other hand, if something is good, we're almost programmed to think, "Okay, I don't need to worry about that anymore," and we don't discuss it.

Now, that's just one level of discussion. It's also the nature of news itself. Without getting political, news typically highlights big and noteworthy events that bring about change. Unfortunately, these events are often negative and explosive.

How did we cure polio? It took years, and there were key people who played a crucial role in eradicating it globally over several years, similar to smallpox. But there was no singular moment that made for a compelling news story. Crafting such stories becomes much harder.

Every year, I curate a list, usually found online, titled "99 Good News Stories You Didn't Hear About." It includes science breakthroughs, discoveries, and positive changes in tyranny, poverty, disease, and war. 

You wonder, "Why haven't I heard about any of this?" Hans Rowling, a demographer from Sweden, created the "greatest PowerPoint presentation of all time," showcasing the remarkable advancements in the world over the last 20 years. Unfortunately, most Western audiences, including journalists and scholars, remain unaware of these advancements. When tested, they often score worse than chimpanzees.

The reason is simple: they're consuming the news. For instance, if you read the New York Times and I ask you about the likelihood of being hospitalized if you catch Covid, the average reader would say 50%. Surprisingly, the answer is 1.5%. This isn't a comment on the seriousness of Covid, but rather an order of magnitude difference in understanding the risks. It's not specific to the New York Times or that issue.

There are numerous issues where almost every time a percentage is in the headline, there's some misleading quality to it. Reading with great care is crucial; checking footnotes and consulting other voices is necessary. But who has the time for that? As a result, we end up hearing the negative and assuming it's true.

SM: How can we overcome polarization? What could be a first, small step?

SF: We can certainly plant seeds and live a life that, looking back, we feel glad and hopeful. I've been teaching one aspect of this to my students for the last three or four semesters. I teach them a very simple, counterintuitive method. 

I then invite them, as an optional assignment, to try it out in a "hot topics" conversation about a political issue that they feel strongly about—an eight, nine, or ten—and that someone in their life feels differently about, ranking at a one, two, or three. Both care about the issue, so there's a lot at stake. Can they talk about it?

I would estimate that 60 to 80% of the time, they come back and say, "That went way better than I expected. It went way better than my counterpart expected. We both enjoyed it, felt closer to each other afterwards. We didn't necessarily change each other's minds, but my counterpart said he was energized, enjoyed it, and wants to do more of it." 

In the process, they sometimes say, "I learned things. I thought there was no possible thing they could say that would make a difference, and I learned something." I hear that, and I think, "What a delight, what a joy.”

I've seen students do this all over the world—from New York to Pakistan, Korea, Haiti, and China. It doesn't matter the culture or the issue; they've talked about everything and still had these positive experiences. So, it's kind of a proof of concept. You can do this, and it's not that hard to learn.

SM: What did the students do? Was it about listening? Was it about not trying to convince the other person to change their mind?

SF: Each of those is a part of it, but it really comes down to just three little words. As a side note, this is the focus of my next book, not the current one. It's a part of it, but the three little words they used are paraphrase, praise, probe.

The idea is, when you get onto a hot topic, you start by simply listening. When the other person finishes talking about their view on the issue, you make sure you understand it. You say back what the other person said so well that they respond with, “Exactly."

Then you praise them. Intentionally highlight something non-obvious that you genuinely learned or appreciate about what the other person is saying. Does that mean you agree with them? No, but almost invariably, there's something—probably several things—that this person has shared that are worthy of praise, and that takes a little discipline.

If there's absolutely nothing, you go back and say, "Say more." Eventually, you may discover that you don't agree with this person, but they genuinely care about children's safety, justice, or free speech—things worthy of praise.

Next, you ask a question. Not a prosecutor's question like "Isn't it true?" but a question a child might ask, such as, "Can you help me understand this?" or "What do you mean when you use this word?" or "Can you give me an example?" or "How could we test that?" These are simple questions, and then you repeat the process.

Eventually, you share your view. By the time you do, you've built goodwill, trust, and validation. The other person is interested in reciprocating, and you've modeled the kind of conversation you want.

The conversation turns out to be delightful, and you can go anywhere with it. It's much better than arguing. I can speak with confidence about this because I went to law school, and I know that arguing is a great way to alienate and bother people.

SM: Your words are always very kind and positive. Would you say that kindness and positivity could be part of the formula for how to negotiate?

SF: The paraphrase, praise, and probe technique provides a tool to structure intentional respect and kindness. The fundamental thing I teach my students is that the goal here is not to change someone's mind but to touch their heart and to be 3% more loving. It turns out that this is often one of the most effective ways to change somebody's mind eventually.

A notable example is Darryl Davis, a jazz and rhythm and blues artist in his 50s, living in southern Maryland. Over about 10 years, he built relationships with several members of the Ku Klux Klan. Through one-on-one conversations, he engaged with them in such a way that they left the Klan. In fact, many left, with hundreds renouncing their racism and apologizing.

They would give him their Klan outfits, and he now has a whole closet filled with dozens of Klan outfits. The reason they left the Klan was because of the way he conversed with them, essentially employing the method I'm describing. Davis said, "I never set out to get any of them to leave the Klan. I just wanted to engage with them as human beings and ask them, 'How can you hate me when you don't even know me?' That gradually destroyed their misconceptions.”

SM: How do you preserve your energy? Because what you do isn't easy. How do you stay positive and kind, especially when things get tough?

SF: The truth is, I'm not up against a lot of toxicity or animosity. I avoid putting myself on social media in situations where people act like snipers. I'm in a fortunate place, and I speak with respect and humility for those less fortunate. But I can tell you about people I've had the privilege of knowing who deal with incredible toxicity and still succeed.

Take hostage negotiators, for example. I've gotten to know the leaders of the New York Police Department's hostage negotiation team. They've come to my classes, we've had interviews, and they've become friends. They'll tell you there are specific, learnable skills that make a difference. It can be horrible talking to someone with a gun pointed at a 10-year-old boy, and yet they succeed—not always, but they do. How do they cope?

Well, they have a team, training, and they employ many of the skills I was just talking about, like paraphrasing. A significant part of their work involves taking a break. When overwhelmed, they get out, find a way to detox. 

There's an old misquote, "Never go to bed angry," which is terrible advice. What are the chances that, drunk and exhausted at 2 in the morning, you and your significant other will work things out? Taking a break might help you do much better.

So, there's no one thing that can protect you from toxicity. That's why having an array of treatment options is crucial.

SM: In your experience, what's the best way to approach a situation where you have something that could potentially change things for the better, but you're afraid to voice it?

SF: In a way, you've just framed the thesis of the book or the challenge the book seeks to address. I sometimes refer to this as dealing with Godzilla. 

How do you negotiate with Godzilla? It might not be someone who's mean, but someone so powerful that it feels like I'm Bambi and they're just going to crush me. How do I engage with this person in a way that at least has a chance of being constructive and successful? In essence, every tool in the book is designed to help with that. I'll start with the very first one. 

I had a student who got a phone call from her biggest client, represented by a woman named Brenda. Brenda asked about the project's progress, and the client needed it in 30 days instead of the agreed-upon 60. The student, Janice, was hesitant but said it wasn't possible. Brenda wasn't happy, and her boss later called, threatening to pull the project, which would be disastrous for the company.

Facing an impasse, Janice used the first tool of the book to transform the problem into a negotiation, allowing them to develop a counteroffer. The counteroffer pleased the client, and the crisis ended positively. Janice became a hero. 

SM: How did you come up with such a great name for every single chapter?

SF: It's very kind of you, and I'm pleased to hear you feel that way. I didn't come up with them; my editors told me to come up with something short, pithy, and catchy. So, I came up with these things. They said, "Yes, that’s what we want."

SM: Could you tell me more about the chapter, ”Decide with three birds in the bush”?

SF: That tool addresses the most common question I get from students during interview season. They often say, "Professor, I have one job offer, and it's not great. I need to respond by Friday. I don't expect another offer soon, but I don't think it's a good offer. What should I do? Do I have to take it?” 

This reveals a flaw in what negotiation instructors typically teach. We advise developing your BATNA, your best alternative to a negotiated agreement, but that takes time and creativity. In situations like this, where time is limited and no other offer is on the horizon, it implies you should take any offer, even if it's not ideal. 

The conventional wisdom is to walk away when your BATNA is better, but here your BATNA is zero. Does that mean you should accept an offer for a dollar a year? Obviously not. So, what do you do?

The tool you're asking about helps better answer that question. It asks, "You have a bird in the hand, but what if it's reasonably likely that in the next two, three, or four months, you could get three birds in the bush? Should you let go of that first bird?" The answer is very possibly yes.

The tool guides you through a systematic way to discern your likely near-future prospects, discounting them in a way that considers logic, the human heart, and the practical wisdom of someone older, wiser, and smarter. 

This process results in a good estimate of what I call your notional BATNA, something you don't have now but may well have in the next few months. This aligns with the logic that many business people use for critical decisions. 

For instance, game designers often assume that a microchip will be powerful enough in 18 months to do what it currently can't do, building toward that future. This thinking aligns with the "bird in the hand, three in the bush" approach, and I've adapted decision science into this tool.

SM: Do you believe it's possible to negotiate successfully if the other person doesn't sense some humanity on your side?

SF: Absolutely, it's possible. However, highly aggressive, obnoxious, or manipulative negotiation practices or conflict management practices are high-risk, high-return bets. They can damage your reputation, alienate people, and lead to destructive outcomes. I strongly advise against such approaches, despite their temptation.

One frightening example is Soviet-style bargaining tactics. In June 1961, during his first and only meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, John Kennedy experienced intense aggression. Kennedy later described it as the worst thing that ever happened to him, emphasizing the severe and menacing nature of Khrushchev's negotiating style. While such tactics can work in some ways, they come with significant risks.

Our goal should be to be both strong and kind. If you're only kind, you might end up like Kennedy—shaken and ruined. If you're only strong, you could become like a Soviet premier, wielding power without regard for the person. The key is to combine these seemingly opposite qualities, being tough on the problems but soft on the person. This is a central aspiration of the book—to make this approach more operational and accessible when needed the most.

SM: Is there a term to describe what you just mentioned—the combination of strength and kindness?

SF: While there may not be a single word to capture it, individuals who embody this quality include figures like Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. 

They demonstrated a remarkable ability to be both strong and kind, achieving the seemingly impossible and changing the course of history. While it might feel daunting to compare oneself to such figures, applying these principles on a more local scale is very achievable with a bit of training and the right tools.

SM: Is there any specific hope that you have for readers, for anyone who decides to read your book? Is there anything you would like them to take away?

SF: I'm very ambitious for my readers. Similar to my students, I conclude with the message, "Go make me proud," with the intention that they accomplish remarkable feats. As I often tell my students and might say to my readers, when you win the Nobel Peace Prize, remember me in your speech. 

Even that is a modest ambition because I want them to create more peace, prosperity, justice, and success for themselves and others in every walk of life. This is something an 11-year-old child can learn to do, demonstrating remarkable maturity, wisdom, and graciousness in the process. 

I've witnessed companies generating a hundred million dollars in savings within a year, all while leaving their suppliers expressing admiration, saying, "You guys are great. We love you, and we want to work with you more." 

It might seem impossible, but there's a word for those results—shalom, a Hebrew term that means more than peace; it signifies "wholeness," the full flowering of human potential, and the nourishing of human aspiration, harmony, understanding, prosperity, and justice. 

All these things are daily longings. If you put aside the lofty words and listen for the language used in business and political life, everyone is longing for these things, just expressing it differently. 

My aspirations for my readers include the ability to communicate with a boss in a way that enhances the day or helps the company thrive, to talk to friends with love while nudging them toward wise outcomes, and to discover hidden paths to opportunity that others may overlook.

SM: Could "wholeness" be the word that combines kindness and strength, especially when dealing with conflicts that demand a larger, holistic vision?

SF: In moments of conflict, our perspective narrows, and we often see things through a pinhole. We focus on ourselves, viewing the other person as an adversary and an insurmountable obstacle. 

Stalin famously advocated for eliminating the person to eliminate the problem, fostering a mindset that treats the other as roadkill. Much negotiation advice encourages this perspective, emphasizing self-advocacy and claiming a substantial portion of the wealth, which the book also addresses with specific tools for "winning warmly"—creating wealth while maintaining a positive approach.

It's remarkable that, more often than we might think, we can care for others as well as we care for ourselves. This ability, when practiced, results in a state of affairs that never fails to delight me and those who embrace it, making everyone involved better off.

SM: We've covered various aspects of negotiation and conflict management. What would you pinpoint as the crucial element for our listeners to focus on in handling their conflicts better?

SF: Let me go through a few fundamentals that you don't necessarily need the book exclusively for, as many resources cover these key principles. Active listening, thorough preparation, understanding your BATNA—these are principles found in numerous books.

What excites me and forms the core of the book isn't just imparting principles but, akin to your school experience, providing tools—templates, mnemonics, reminders, charts, graphs—that scaffold your learning. This structure offers a framework to make it easier for you to retain and apply this knowledge.

It's about those principles crystallized into usable tools or sayings. Beyond any specific book, I'd suggest a subtle mindset shift—from viewing each other as adversaries to considering the possibility of collaboration for mutual satisfaction. 

Here's a concrete example: in the supply chain, purchasing agents historically aimed for a dollar less. However, given today's complex and fragile supply chain, this approach no longer suffices. Consulting firms and my clients have adopted a different approach, creating billions in value and fostering better relations. Despite its effectiveness, it remains somewhat of a secret. 

So, beyond the notion of being 'nice,' this approach serves as a competitive advantage while promoting humanity. The choice between the two is left to my listeners and readers, yet the good news is that you can have both—thrive, grow, and become more humane simultaneously.

SM: Conflict is an integral part of our lives, a crucial aspect of learning and an inevitable result of relationships. Thank you for sharing insights from your book and more in this conversation. My hope is that your book remains relevant for decades to come.

SF: Thank you, Stephen. You've been a fantastic interviewer, turning this into a delightful and insightful conversation. You've brought out nuances not often explored in these discussions, and I credit you for that. Any shortcomings are on me, but thank you sincerely. I've thoroughly enjoyed it.

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