Ava J. Abramowitz on Essentials of Negotiation (Trust Quotes #15)

Ava J. Abramowitz is a lawyer, mediator, and author.  She is also an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects and currently is serving as the first public member of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards. Not surprisingly, she teaches negotiation at George Washington University Law School; was in-house counsel for the American Institute of Architects; serves as a mediator in the Federal courts in Washington, DC; and lectures nationally on negotiation. 

As befits such an interesting woman, she is married to a man who is quite interesting in his own right, Neil Rackham.

But our main interest in this interview centers around a most remarkable book she has written, titled Architect’s Essentials of Negotiation (The Architect’s Essentials of Professional Practice). While it’s nominally about architects, the fact that it’s so readable outside that profession is a guarantor that she’s talking about universal truths. Let’s dig in.

CHG: Ava, thanks so much for doing this interview with us. I’m excited, because I was so taken by your book. Let me start in a very particular place. Outside of perhaps existentialist philosophers, theologians or therapists, you and I are the only ones I know who refer to the Other—in caps—when we’re talking about the protagonist in a commercial relationship. Why do you do that?

AJA: In all my writing and always in my thoughts, I refer to the "Other" and not the "other side" when talking about those with whom we negotiate. "Other side" implies the people are opponents. "Other" implies they are just not us. It is hard to build common ground with opponents, but a bit exciting, invariably challenging, and sometimes even fun to build common ground with people who, although they want a solution to a shared problem as much as we do, view that problem differently because they have different sets of eyes and experiences. A small change in mindset, but it’s an important and useful one to use and remember. Not a friend. Not an enemy. Just an Other.

CHG: Let’s take the readers right to the punch line: in your view, what is the central message of this book?

AJA: In business and in everyday life, it is far more profitable for all the parties to forge strategic alliances with each other to solve the problems facing them. You need not like the Other. In the early stages of negotiation, you need not even trust the Other. But if you and the Other collectively can solve the problem in a way that meets both of your compelling short and long term interests and needs, you should do it. Solid negotiation skills will get you there. They can be learned.

CHG: Reading your book it seems so obvious that that’s how things should work. Why doesn’t it always turn out that way?

AJA: Sometimes the way people analyze the situation leads them to believe that there is no common ground. I don’t want to get into politics, but right now the United States is so bifurcated that people forget that everyone who is running for office believes in “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and in “truth, justice and the American way.” They may differ on the definitions of those values or how best to achieve them, but at the core the persons sitting across the aisle from them are not an enemy to be destroyed. They are just Others with different views of the problem and the solution.

CHG: Notwithstanding what I said above, this book was written nominally for architects. And in one way, they are unique. Unlike most other professions, there are usually three parties involved in commercial discussions: the architect, the contractor, and the owner. Does that make architecture more complicated than, say, the practice of law?

AJA: Ah, good question, but no lawyer could say yes and survive. After all, the American legal system is not routinely described as “an adversary system” for nothing.  Here lawyers represent parties who may have entered a negotiation with no desire for a settlement. For example, parties may have retained a lawyer to obstruct a solution because they figure that delay is in their interests. Architecture and construction, at least at the outset, are less conflicted. At the start of every project everyone wants the project to come in on-time, on budget, and with no claims. And everyone wants to make a profit.

Additionally, risk is handled differently in the legal setting than on the construction site. Lawyers are taught to think liability first and foremost and to figure out ways to foist liability on the Other, freeing their client to risk without responsibility. Sophisticated parties in design and construction, however, recognize that risk and reward go hand in hand. To them, the easiest way to achieve success is to assign each exposure to the party most capable of managing it, and to give that party all the responsibility and the power—both authority and fee—needed to manage that exposure well. In other words, they forge strategic alliances with and among the parties with mutual success being the overriding goal.

CHG: You know quite a bit about the psychology of sales through Neil. Are there any sales insights that fit with your sense of negotiations?

AJA:  For many a person Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Fisher and Ury was their introduction to negotiation. There Fisher and Ury set out a staged theory of negotiation that building on common ground should produce a shared solution that meets the parties’ key interests and needs, and solves the problem that brought them to the table in the first place. The book and many of its derivative works, though, are less eloquent on how precisely do you do it.

For me, Neil’s book, SPIN Selling filled in that missing blank. By asking questions, particularly Implication and Need/Payoff Questions, one can uncover the explicit needs of the Other and address them. With that knowledge common ground can be more readily identified and built.

How powerful a tool are questions? Inestimable. Questions reveal the Other’s needs, values, and priorities. They help with elegant option development. They expose problems in your own thinking. Questions are a solid alternative to saying no. They help you manage the negotiation, giving you time to process the information you hear and figure out how you want to deal with it.

Questions help you build trust. There is nothing more powerful than listening and using the information you are hearing to build common ground. Nothing convinces the Other more that you care and are worthy of their trust.

CHG: Part of why this book resonated so well with me is the fundamental stress on relationship; that’s what trust is so much about, too. I know you’ve thought about trust, presumably about trust as it relates to negotiation and mediation. Do tell us what you think about it?

AJA: Trust is a matter of choice.You can choose to trust, or not. You can choose to be trust-worthy, or not. You can negotiate with people whom you trust and with those whom you do not. Trusting appropriately just makes negotiation easier.

Clients use proxy measures when deciding whom to trust. It is clear from research that clients look for competence, candor, and concern in the professionals they retain. The more the client sees the consultant being competent, candid, and concerned about the client, the more the client tends to trust the consultant. It is easy to say, “Be candid, concerned, and competent,” but it is not always easy to do and even harder to prove that you are being candid, concerned, and competent.

Try proving you are trustworthy by saying to someone, “Candidly….” Saying that invariably puts the Other instantly on guard. Additionally, it raises an issue where none existed: Were you not being candid before? When will you deceive again? There are clearly ways to prove you are Other-focused. Asking questions helps prove to the Other that what they say, think, and feel is important to you. Disclosure of internal information helps, too, particularly when it makes your motivations and perceptions transparent.

Your book brings this all home. In one of the best books on earning and deserving trust, The Trusted Advisor, you and your colleagues, David H. Maister and Robert M. Galford, take these earlier findings one step further, developing what you called the trust equation where trust is a function of credibility, reliability, intimacy, and self-orientation. You found that the more credible, reliable, and intimate one is with and about the Other and the less self-oriented they are, the more they will be trusted by the Other. Words to live by.

CHG: Let’s get beyond architects alone here. Is there a Single Biggest Mistake people make in thinking about negotiation? Or a Big Three?  

AJA:  To answer that question, let us pin down the kind of expert negotiator I have in mind. Based on Huthwaite research I have come to classify as “expert” those negotiators who share three characteristics: They have a track record of reaching agreements, a track record of their agreements being implemented successfully, and a track record of the Other being willing to negotiate with them again. In other words, I value, as experts, people who, time after time, successfully resolve their principals’ long-term and short-term problems through negotiation and in such a way that the Other is willing to work with them again.

What do these experts have in common? They prepare and strategize for the negotiation before the negotiation so that when they sit down with the Other they have freed themselves to listen, and they listen hard and well. They use the information they hear to locate an idea they can support and build on, ultimately yielding common ground. And even as they close in on a negotiated agreement, they prod. “How will that work?” What if x happens?” “How will it play out if all things go well, and if they do not?” "Is there anything we can do to build success into the effort?"

These negotiators are committed to long-term success of the parties and the agreement. If the agreement is to fall apart, they want it to fall apart before it is signed, so that they can pick up the papers, shake them off, and try again. And that is why they and their clients succeed and the Other is willing to negotiate with them again.

CHG: Ava, this has been a delight. Thank you so much for ‘stopping by’ to chat with us, and for sharing your wisdom and insights.

Disclosure: I am an Amazon affiliate and receive a very small commission for products purchased through my Amazon links.

Great Moments in Marketing Fear

I may not be a marketer by profession, but I doubt I’d get much argument from the pros about what sells best—reliably, dependably, year in and year out.

Sex. And fear.

Maybe sex is number one. But if so, it’s not by much.  Fear of fill-in-the-blank. Being left behind. Being left out. Not getting the joke. Looking dumb. Dressing wrong. Knowing the wrong people. Doing the wrong thing. Not doing the right thing. Being stuck with something that smells. Having a house that smells. Being the smell.

Identifying the right “pitch” or “hook” is, I suspect, even more important for fear-based products. Case in point: a particularly clever new product.

Introducing Slydial—see the August 2 New York Times article, Don’t Want to Talk About It? Order a Missed Call, by Matt Richtel:

When Alexis Gorman, 26, wanted to tell a man she had been dating that the courtship was over, she felt sending a Dear John text message was too impersonal. But she worried that if she called the man, she would face an awkward conversation or a confrontation.

So she found a middle ground. She broke it off in a voice mail message, using new technology that allowed her to jump directly to the suitor’s voice mail, without ever having to talk to the man — or risk his actually answering the phone.

The technology, called Slydial, lets callers dial a mobile phone but avoid an unwanted conversation — or unwanted intimacy — on the other end. The incoming call goes undetected by the recipient, who simply receives the traditional blinking light or ping that indicates that a voice mail message has been received.

Genius. Elegant in its simplicity. The sweet relief of being able to plausibly lie and avoid conflict at the same time.  It’s calling when you know someone will be out—squared.

Where does this fit in the pantheon of problem-solving inventions? It’s gotta be up there with Get Out of Jail Free cards, the morning-after pill, the hangover pill (slot as yet unfilled), homework-eating dogs, and the deus ex machina plotline.

Because almost all our worst fears involve other humans. Fear of being eaten alive in the forest by bears? Chicken——, compared to the mortification of a teenager shunned by peers. Hearing Sister Mary say you’ll rot in hell for doing whatever it was you already did. Receiving a dear John call. Calling dear John.

Slydial is unique only in one tiny detail. You already have access to voicemail. You can already send digitized voice messages. Slydial’s tiny tweak is the shortcut straight to voicemail, unbeknownst to the receiver. It is the caller’s equivalent of caller ID or spam filters. One small step for technology—one giant leap for Freudkind.

Because this permits the caller to lie. Plausibly.

The caller’s lie is this: “Hey, I tried to call you, but you were out. So I guess I’ll just have to leave this message on voicemail—not that I want to, gosh I hate to do this kind of thing so impersonally. Sorry about that, but—well, it wasn’t my fault. So, anyway, hey—I’m breaking up with you. I couldn’t make it into work today. The dog ate my homework. About your party, you know, pre-existing commitment. We’ll do lunch another time. Sorry I missed your birthday.”

All without that distaste that accompanies having to talk to the Other.

Seinfeld’s George Costanza—the patron saint of avoidance—would have loved Slydial. His spiritual progenitor, Larry David, would know just how to market it. Perhaps Slydial’s owner, MobileSphere, should hire David to consult, based on this from the article:

MobileSphere’s co-founder, Gavin Macomber, said the tool was a time-saver in a world in which conversations could waste time, whereas voice mail can get directly to the point. Part of the reason people are so overwhelmed, Mr. Macomber said, is because they are connected to devices and streams of data around the clock.

Puh-leeze. Alexis Gorman knows better. She works in marketing, and says of her Dear John slydial, “I can do without the drama…I wanted to avoid an awkward conversation.”

So does Manny Mamakis, also quoted in the article as finding it a time-saver. But then Manny speaks the Truth:

“It does make you more cowardly,” he said.

Slydial’s effectiveness—like Borat or Punk’d—depends on being relatively unknown. It loses power once it goes mass-market. “You rat, don’t think you can Slydial me!

I predict a meteoric—albeit short-lived—success for Slydial. Anything that feeds fear of other people will sell well. Sex it up and the sky’s the limit.

Sometimes fear sells you what you actually do need—say, the morning after pill.  But other times it sells you the illusion of what you need.  What you need is usually closure, not avoidance.  


Walking Away Equally Unhappy

Ever hear the phrase “a good negotiation is one where both parties walk equally unhappy?”

I’ve heard it attributed to various negotiation programs, and always intuitively knew it felt wrong. Applied to the metaphor of relationships, which I feel is a better metaphor for matters of trust, it comes up wanting.

In the relationship metaphor world, “both parties walking away equally unhappy” is a recipe for divorce.


I figured that for a tidy little blog topic, so I googled the phrase “walk away equally unhappy”—but found only eleven instances in total.

Of the eleven, only three used the phrase approvingly: once by a divorce attorney, once by an estate lawyer, and once by an online commenter talking about buying used cars online. Hey, I just report the news.

Most uses of the phrase were said by way of disapproval—the bulk coming from Diane Levin. Diane is a lawyer by training, but a mediator by inclination. An early champion of ADR (alternative dispute resolution), it’s clear from her writings (I don’t know her personally beyond her “about me” section) she is well versed in and receptive to the idea that one plus one is very much what we make of it.
Whether the arena is corporate negotiations or divorce or contract disputes, her motto is “only connect,” which she does online as well as in real life. Negotiations need not be adversarial interactions; each such interaction is another opportunity to create unlimited value.

At the risk of appearing un-objective—she is completely right.

Yul Brynner reportedly said, “We come into this world alone, and we leave it the same way; if someone offers you friendship along the way, you don’t spit on it.” That’s the minimalist, barebones, ironic statement of the proposition. It’s true even said that way.

We have a choice about how to deal with others. We can take the risks of trusting, and of being trusted. Or we can shut down. If we do the former, sometimes we get burned. That’s life.

Butif we spend our lives, and build our institutions, and conduct our economies, so as to avoid getting burned, we end up losing our life too. Just a little more slowly, and qualitatively. But no less in the end.

Kudos to Diane, who won’t settled for people walking away equally unhappy. Good for you.

Trust with the Ex: Taking Insanity Out of Divorce


A good rule of thumb if you’re going through a divorce: at this time, every thought and instinct you have is wrong.

Most divorces I know of are breeding grounds for resentment and bad behavior. The desire for revenge overwhelms most decent and sensible instincts.

There are two reasons divorce so often turns out this way: human nature, and legal nature.

Our baser natures, I think, are focused on self-preservation—including psychologically. That means we react from fear—never a good thing. And nothing hurts like the one who said “I do” saying “I don’t.”

Lawyers operate in a profession where there is no concept of truth—there is only evidence. And marriage—being a civil contract—has grown to be subject to the usual legal framework—opposing interests, plaintiffs and defendants. Husband meets wife in a court of law, to determine a winner and loser. A worse formula for amicable separation is hard to imagine.

Some argue this is fine: it is in society’s interest for it to be difficult to divorce. Maybe—but when you’re the individual, it doesn’t feel good taking a bullet “for society.”

Paradoxically, divorces—if navigated well—can be enormous opportunities for personal growth. To retain one’s self-worth, to choose the long-term over the short, to remain magnanimous under stress, and to choose compassion over revenge—these are all higher-order acts.

Some initiatives within the legal profession move in a more human direction—in particular, mediation and collaborative divorce. In Keen Interest in Gentler Ways to Divorce, AP reporter David Crary lays out the case.

Both mediation and collaborative divorce are far cheaper, for one thing:

[The Boston Collaborative] analyzed 199 of its recent divorce cases, and found that mediation, collaborative divorce and litigation all produced high rates of successful settlement. Mediation was by far the least expensive option, with a median cost of $6,600, compared to $19,723 for a collaborative divorce, $26,830 for settlements negotiated by rival lawyers, and $77,746 for full-scale litigation.

It also gives lawyers a way out of a nasty business:

Most of us had that moment where we realize the adversarial process is so damaging for our clients — and there’s a recognition that we can do better," said Talia Katz, a former divorce lawyer who is executive director of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals.

The forces of Good also seem to be winning a few rounds:

Supporters of collaborative law were dismayed last February, when the Colorado Bar Association declared such arrangements unethical on grounds that they prevented a lawyer from exercising undivided loyalty to a client. But in August, the American Bar Association’s Ethics Committee weighed in, endorsing the collaborative process as long as clients were fully informed about its provisions.

People have written that divorce is bad for children; I think it’s the typical divorce that is bad for children. A mediated or collaborative divorce offers the possibility of continued respect between mother and father, thereby not confusing their children for life.

I’ve written elsewhere (Trust in Business: the Core Concepts) that trust can be deconstructed into four components. The most powerful of them is a low level of self-orientation of the one who would be trusted.

I can think of few things that drive us more toward self-orientation, and therefore untrustworthy behavior, than the whirlpool of divorce—as usually practiced.

Sometimes Spouse A suggests collaborative or mediated divorce; yet because of resentment, low trust, etc., Spouse B rejects the opportunity—precisely because it was suggested by Spouse A. Little do they know how much that first sip of poison will infect the rest of their lives.

If you know someone who’s getting divorced, urge them—strongly—to read up on mediated or collaborative divorce.

If you’re getting divorced, and your spouse has suggested it—thank your stars that the one you used to be in love with still has enough respect for your marriage to consider ending it decently.

If you’re the one in a position to initiate it, do yourself and everyone else a huge favor. Mediate, collaborate—don’t litigate.