Narrative Timelines in Negotiation Preparation

Many people think that in order to be successful in a negotiation, they just need to identify what it is they want, go in, and get it. Others hear the word negotiation, and start backing away feeling unprepared. As any of you who have negotiated for anything at any time know, it does not always work out the way you intend. However, there are ways to influence the flow of a negotiation so you will be more likely to get what you want.

I like to frame negotiation from a relational perspective. This means that in preparation for the negotiation I ask myself about the present relationship I have with my negotiating partner, the relationship I want to have, and, if there is a gap, how can I address it. The caveat here is that in order to more fully understand the relational dynamics between us, I first need to know more about who I am and which aspects of my complex and layered self will be more present in the negotiation. In order to do this, I need to develop a deeper self-awareness.

We all carry stories with us, consciously or not, about who we are as individuals and who we are in relation to others. You may wonder where these stories come from and why some are more prominent than others in certain situations. This depends very much on who we are negotiating with.

Here is an example to illustrate this point. Let’s say John is negotiating in a situation where he feels the others around him are smarter than he is. In that negotiation context he might be questioning his intellectual competence. Every interaction and comment he has he will see through the lens of whether he is smart enough to be in this negotiation. He will wonder if others are judging him according to how intelligent he is, if something does not go his way he may continue to question his own intellectual prowess, and this will take him away from being more fully present in the negotiation because he is so consumed with his intellectual ability.

In order to have any sense of agency in the situation to modify your story, you need to first determine where your stories come from and how they are influencing how you show up in a negotiation. One CMM framework I have found useful in developing a deeper sense of self-awareness in preparation for a negotiation, is the serpentine model. We can think of the serpentine model as a flow of twists and turns with pivotal choice points along the way. Some of these pivotal points can be critical moments in that the influence is more impactful than at other moments.

To take this a step further, I have framed the serpentine as a timeline and separated the different sources of significant moments. For example, we all have stories about who we should be from our social context growing up. This can include the media, our community, social media, and our education, to name a few. Another source of stories can be those we hear in our workplace or organizational setting. A third source of stories can be what you heard in your family while growing up. And there can be more depending on how you classify them to give you the information you need at any given point.

Here is a set of narrative timelines to illustrate the above scenario.

All of these stories together create personal narratives that we carry and that influence our behavior and communication in our interactions. Before a negotiation, I want to know who I am as a negotiator and I want to track all of the significant stories that I am looking at from that moment in time. It will help me know how these significant people, events, places, experiences, shape who I am today.

Then I can think about the person with whom I am negotiating, the context we will be negotiating in, and the issues we will be negotiating. I trace back to the prominent stories from these narrative timelines that could possibly influence me in this negotiation. I separate these influences that shape my story about who I am as a negotiator into stories that are helpful to moving me forward and those that are getting in the way of me being effective. The stories that are helpful, positive, and generative I want to grow. The stories that are getting in my way I want to delete or modify to turn them into helpful stories.

The main point here is that we are complex beings made up of many different influences and we can exert more agency in curating which aspects of us we want to show up in any given negotiation. The events, people, places, experiences we place on these narrative timelines shape or prescribe the frame we will use to understand and act into any situation, in this case, a negotiation. When we know more about the sources of these framing influences and how they affect us, we can be more mindful in selecting the influences that shape the stories that will be helpful.

You can see here how these stories shaped John’s take on his intellectual abilities that influenced how he framed and showed up for this negotiation. By identifying the helpful examples and modifying the unhelpful ones, he is able to be better prepared for his negotiation, by creating a positive mindset, identifying potential triggers, and having responses ready if he does get triggered to get back on course.

Beth Fisher-Yoshida,
Program Director of Columbia University’s Master of Science in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution, a negotiation consultant for the United Nations, and the CEO of the consulting agency Fisher Yoshida International.

Author of New Story, New Power: A Woman’s Guide to Negotiation (Bold Story Press; January 23, 2023).


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