Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 3, Issue 21;   May 21, 2003: When You Think They've Made Up Their Minds

When You Think They've Made Up Their Minds

by

In tough negotiations, when attempts to resolve differences have failed, we sometimes conclude that "they've made up their minds," but other explanations abound. Keeping an open mind about why other people seem to have closed theirs can help us find a resolution.
Navy vs. Marine Corps tug of war in Vera Cruz, Mexico ca. 1910-1915

Tug of War between sailors and Marines in Vera Cruz, ca. 1910-1915. Sometimes even the simplest negotiation feels like a tug of war.

The photo is by the Bain News Service, from the George Grantham Bain Collection of the U.S. Library of Congress.

Tom didn't quite know what to do. He had prepared several creative proposals, and until just now, he'd hoped that the Wolcott team would have brought some of their own. But they hadn't, and they didn't like his ideas either.

In desperation, he tried, "Maybe we should look at these options again — perhaps I explained them poorly."

Powell spoke for Wolcott. "No, you did a fine job — all three are just nonstarters. We liked where we were yesterday."

When we're negotiating a difficult issue, we might occasionally feel that our negotiation partners are being inflexible. They won't even entertain alternatives that seem to us to be promising. We sometimes say to ourselves, "they've made up their minds."

We can feel frustrated when we encounter this. For most of us, flexibility and rationality are attributes we value, and when someone openly "breaks the rules," we can even feel angry.

Keeping in mind the many possible meanings of their behavior can make it easier to accept difference when we find it. Here are just a few alternative explanations for apparent intransigence. Of course, analogous ideas apply to you, too.

When they won't budge,
inflexibility is only one
possible explanation
Maybe they know something
Perhaps there's some important information that they know and you don't. Whether or not that information is correct, they may be unable to share it with you. If you knew it too, your views might be more in alignment with theirs.
Maybe they don't know they know something
Perhaps they know something, and they believe that you know it, too, but you don't. If having the information is important to their view, not having it might be important to yours. Try inviting them to explore assumptions and context with you, to be certain that they've shared everything they can.
Beliefs are stronger than facts
They might have firm beliefs, rather than facts, that lead them to the conclusion they've reached. Persuading someone of the validity of facts is often possible; persuading someone of the invalidity of their beliefs is much more difficult.
The slim end of the wedge
They might believe that you have a wider agenda than you claim, and that if they flex here, you'll move them along toward your real objective. Is there any truth in this?
Directed disagreement
A superior might have directed them to take the position they're taking. This can happen, for example, when compromise might threaten a larger strategy that they're unwilling to modify or disclose, assuming that they know what it is.

When you next encounter strong differences, it might help to remember that we can never really know what's in the mind of another. And sometimes, we're not completely sure about our own. Go to top Top  Next issue: Enjoy Every Part of the Clam  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

For more about differences and disagreements, see "Appreciate Differences," Point Lookout for March 14, 2001; "Towards More Gracious Disagreement," Point Lookout for January 9, 2008; "Blind Agendas," Point Lookout for September 2, 2009; and "Is the Question "How?" or "Whether?"," Point Lookout for August 31, 2011.

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