Prof. Deepak Malhotra - Before You Speak Your Mind

By Prof. Deepak Malhotra
Harvard Business School
Co-Author: Negotiation Genius - Buy It Now!

In today’s show, we talked a lot about how to speak your mind. One of the things that we focused less on is preparing to speak your mind. As it turns out, speaking your mind requires a l

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ot more than simply finding the courage to speak and choosing the right words. Here are some of the things that should happen before you even start to open your mouth.

1. Clarify your objective. What exactly do you hope to achieve by speaking your mind? Do you want the other person to know how you feel? Do you want to simply express your frustration? Do you want the other person to feel bad? Or do you want to actually change their attitude or behavior? We are often unclear about our real objective, and as a result, we end up saying things that have unintended consequences. We may start out wanting to convince the other person—e.g., a family member—that they should behave differently in a particular situation. But when the other person resists our initial attempts to persuade them, we suddenly get upset and say things that are hurtful (“You’re always such a stubborn jerk! You’ve never had any respect for me or my opinions.”) A better approach would be to keep your primary objective in mind and try another approach. For example, if they are resisting or being defensive, you may want to give them some space to think about your ideas and continue the conversation later. Or, you might ask them whether they are opening to changing their behavior, and if so, what would convince them that it is a good idea to do it? You might even ask whether there are things that, if you were to do differently, would make it easier for them to change.

2. Know your audience. Most people, once they’ve figured out what they want and why they deserve it, will go ahead and voice their thoughts without paying sufficient attention to the perspective of who they are trying to influence. Here are three questions you should ask before you decide which words to use:

a. What is their perspective? In other words, think about how the person you are speaking to sees the issue. What are their biases? What is their expertise? What are their expectations? When asking for a raise, your pitch will need to be different with a boss who likes to see data and evidence for every argument you make vs. someone who is too busy for a lengthy presentation. Similarly, the words you will need to use will differ when you are dealing with someone who has thick skin and can take a joke vs. someone who is very sensitive or is likely to be shocked by your demands.

b. What are their interests? If you want someone to give you something, you need to know what it is that they value. If you want your boss to give you more opportunity to work from home, and if she is resisting this demand, you will get a lot farther if you can identify some of her key concerns and interests with regards to your request. If she is afraid that you will slack off at home, sit down with her to organize a trial period with clear milestones—use this opportunity to prove that you can meet her needs even when you work from home. If she wants to make sure that the group culture does not deteriorate as people start working from home, perhaps you can offer to organize a bi-weekly or monthly gathering of the entire department that actually strengthens group cohesion.

c. What are their constraints? All too often, the person we are speaking to is willing to give us what we want—they think that the request is completely fair—but their hands are tied. You ask for a higher salary from your future boss and he rejects you. You could walk away upset, assuming that he doesn’t appreciate your true worth. Or, you can investigate the reason for the rejection. Ask! Your future boss may like you and think you deserve a higher starting salary, but can’t give you more than he pays other new recruits due to organizational policies. What can you do once you’ve figure out the constraints he faces? Maybe you can ask for a larger signing bonus, more flex time, more vacation time, better projects to work on, an earlier first performance evaluation, or other things that are of value to you. [This brings up another key point when it comes to speaking up for what you want… don’t define the scope of the negotiation too narrowly. Identify all of the things that are of value to you (i.e., all of your interests) and give the other person lots of ways to make you happy.]

3. Anticipate the hardest question they may ask you. I had an executive once tell me about a negotiation in which he achieved a very poor outcome. I asked him what went wrong. His response: “You know, I’d prepared carefully and I had a great strategy. But the other side just didn’t go along with it!” His blunder should be pretty obvious: it’s not the other party’s job to “go along” with your strategy. And yet, many people prepare for important discussions and negotiations as though the other side is going to be a passive listener to everything you have to say and then simply accept or reject your demands. As a result, most people walk into negotiations with a reasonable sense of what they want and a list of reasons or arguments for why the other side should agree. Then the conversation begins. And guess what? The other side starts asking some really tough questions or pointing out some flaws in your argument. And you’re caught off guard. Really effective negotiators, as part of their preparation, take the time to imagine how things might go wrong. Figure out the answer to the following question before you negotiate: “What is the toughest question they may ask me?” You will never anticipate everything they might throw at you, but if you spend some time (perhaps with others who can role-play or brainstorm with you), you will be able to avoid a lot of potential landmines.

- Deepak