Let’s create a hypothetical situation. Say you are trying to make a positive change in your business or organization. In this scenario, you want to reduce the time and effort required to purchase supplies by removing some of the layers of approvals required. To do this, you need buy-in from a key stakeholder – in this case, the vice president of procurement. We’ll call him John. You prepare for your conversation with John by logically outlining the benefits and considerations of reducing the amount of required approvals. It’s a straightforward value proposition that will help eliminate a lot of waste in the process.

When you approach John about making this change, he bristles. “That’s not going to work,” he says. “I can’t have people going out and buying whatever they want. Sorry, but it’s not going to happen.”

His response frustrates you. You’ve laid out a logical argument, but you have been stonewalled. You believe this change is in the best interests of the company, so you can’t give up. So how do you resolve this conflict?

Most of us have encountered similar resistance (and particularly those of us who work in continuous improvement!). Any change represents a deviation from the status quo, and for a variety of reasons this is often met with opposing force. Our ability to navigate through this resistance determines how successful we will be in influencing change.

This requires having a toolbox of solid negotiation skills. I recently finished reading “Never Split the Difference” by Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator. He shares techniques for negotiating to resolve conflict and achieve the desired outcome. These tools apply to any situation where there there is an opposing force functioning as a roadblock to change. To resolve these dilemmas requires effective negotiation.

The following are some of the skills that I learned from “Never Split the Difference” as applied to implementing improvements. We’ll apply them to our hypothetical situation with John to see how we might persuade him to change his mind about reducing the redundant approvals

Skill #1: Mirror and label. When encountering resistance, it’s critical to establish rapport. This is fundamentally about showing empathy for the other person. Mirroring is a tool to show acknowledgement for the other person’s thoughts and feelings by reflecting back what you heard. To mirror, summarize what you have heard the other person say without adding your own thoughts.

Labeling gives us an opportunity to test what we believe to be the underlying concerns based on what we heard. We can do this by using statements that begin with “It seems like…” or “What I’m hearing is…” Pause and wait for confirmation and to give them a chance to elaborate on their concerns.

Let’s apply these techniques to our hypothetical situation with John:

John: “That’s not going to work. I can’t have people going out and buying whatever they want. Sorry, but it’s not going to happen.”

You [mirroring]: “You don’t want people taking advantage of not needing approvals?”

John: “Yes. Our purchasing spend will get out of control.”

You: “I understand we need to manage our costs in the organization.”

John: “That’s right. It’s my job to make sure we do that.”

You [labeling]: “What I’m hearing is that you are concerned about what would happen if you didn’t have control over all of the purchasing in our organization.”

John: “Well, I don’t need to control all of it, per se. Just the big purchases.”

Notice that by mirroring and helping John feel understood, we uncovered some important information about his motivations. He doesn’t want the purchasing spend to get out of control, and he feels personally responsible for this. We can empathize with these concerns which helps to build rapport.

Also note that the label we used was not completely inaccurate. This was okay, because it gave John a chance to clarify his position. By doing so, he revealed that he may actually be open to not approving every purchase. Now we have the opportunity to use another skill – calibrated questions. his gives us an opportunity to hone in on what types of purchases he doesn’t necessarily need to approve.

Skill #2: Use calibrated questions. Specific, targeted questions serve two purposes. First, they ensure you have a deep understanding of the situation. Second, they give you a chance to frame the other person’s outlook and guide the dialogue toward a solution. It’s important to steer away from using ‘Why” questions as these can seem accusatory. Instead, use questions that start with “What” and “How”.

Continuing the discussion with John:

You: “What would you say constitutes a big purchase?”

John (pauses): “Well, anything that puts our budget at risk. So it could be a one-time purchase of $100K or a bunch of smaller purchases over a short period of time that add up.”

You: “That makes sense. You would need to approve those type of purchases to ensure we don’t put the budget at risk. Let me ask you a question – how many of purchases that don’t meet these criteria do you have to approve each month?

John: “There’s probably hundreds of them. Heck, the other day I approved a purchase order for paperclips.”

You: “I would think it would free up a lot of your time if you only approved the purchases that would actually have the potential for impacting our budget. How much time might that save you each month?

John: “Probably several hours.”

You: That’s a lot of time. What are your thoughts on reducing approvals for purchases below the thresholds you mentioned to free up your time to do other things?”

John: “I suppose that’s possible, but we’d need to have a way of enforcing those criteria.”

You: “That’s true. What are your thoughts on how could we do this?”

John: “We probably could get IT to program the purchasing software so that it will route purchases meeting those criteria to me for approval.”

By using calibrated questions, we were able to guide John to acknowledging the possibility of reducing the approval requirements. We helped him see what the benefit would be to him personally. Finally, we involved him in solving the specific concerns he raised. These calibrated questions effectively reframed his outlook and guided him toward a solution.

Skill #3: Beware the early ‘yes’. This particularly skill surprised me as it usually feels like success when someone says ‘yes’ to a change. However, there is a problem with getting to agreement too soon without ensuring you’ve uncovered all of your counterpart’s concerns. The ‘Yes’ might not be a firm commitment but rather a weak agreement that puts the actual execution at risk. You want to make sure you uncover all concerns now so you have a chance to address them, rather then having them affect the outcome later.

Let’s apply this to our conversation with John:

You: “It sounds like if we put these safeguards in place, we could reduce the required approvals while still ensuring we don’t negatively impact our budget.”

John: “Yes, I suppose that could work”.

You: “Before we talk about moving forward, I want to make sure we identify all potential problems that could arise. What do you think could go wrong if we made these changes?”

John: “Well, frankly I’m worried that people are going to buy things they don’t need if they know no one is looking at their purchases. There’s no accountability.”

You: “You want to make sure people don’t abuse this new process by buying things they shouldn’t be. Are there other ways we could monitor this without still having to approve everything?”

John: “We probably could generate a weekly report of all purchases. I’ll review it and make sure nothing seems out of the ordinary.”

You: “So what you’re saying is that if you could review a weekly report of all purchases, this would help us ensure that people are spending appropriately?”

John: “That’s right.”

You: “What other concerns might you have?”

John: “I can’t really think of anything, but I want to make sure this goes smoothly.”

You: “What if we tested this out for a month and verified that everything goes okay? We can always go back to the old way if this doesn’t work.”

John: “Yes, I can get on board with that.

Note that by continuing to probe after the initial ‘yes’, we uncovered additional relevant concerns. This is important because had we not done so, John would have still had hesitation about agreeing. This could have caused later problems when it came time to execute the change. We again involved John in identifying the solution to his concern and obtained his commitment to move forward.

Skill #4: Ensure execution. Make sure you don’t end the conversation without discussion actionable next steps. Whenever possible, get the other person to describe the needed actions to make the change a reality.

You: “So it sounds like reducing the approvals will work as long as we put safeguards in place for items above a certain amount as well as the total monthly spend from any individual. How do we go about making this happen?”

John: “Give me a couple of days to come up with what the thresholds for one-time amounts and total monthly spend should be. We also need to discuss with the VP of Finance to make sure she’s good with it.”

You: “How about I set up a meeting in a few days go over it with her as well as review the thresholds you come up with. Will that work?”

John: “Sure.”

You: “Okay. Assuming we get her approval, what do we need to do next?”

John: “We’ll need to get with IT to make the routing changes in the system.”

You: “I’ll confirm with them the feasibility of the change. Sound like a plan?

John: “That’ll work.”

By prompting John to outline the next steps, we solidified his commitment to execution.

Summary

Through the use of tools like mirroring and labeling, we were able to show John that we acknowledging his thoughts and concerns. We used calibrated questions to better understand the situation and guide him toward a solution. We didn’t settle for an early ‘yes’ but probed deeper to make sure we had uncovered every concern John had about the change. Finally, we ensured his commitment to execution by prompting him to discuss next steps. By using these negotiation skills, we were able to move from John’s initial resistance to a mutually acceptable solution.

Leave a comment below if you have used one of these techniques or want to share additional way to effectively negotiate change.