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The Danger of Assumptions

In the early years of the 20th century, Captain Robert Scott launched an ill-fated expedition to reach the South Pole. He and his team understood perfectly well that the trek would be physically demanding, and expected—based on the best nutritional information available at the time—that they’d need a high-protein diet to fuel their exertions. They prepared accordingly by taking low-fat and high-protein rations. Tragically, their assumptions were inaccurate. They discovered their error during the journey as the men began losing weight drastically; ultimately, burning far more energy than they could replenish with the food on hand, the expedition perished.

Although the consequences are less dire, negotiators face a similar dilemma. We all prepare for negotiations according to our assumptions, without knowing for sure how accurate they are. And just as the Scott expedition couldn’t revisit its preparations in the middle of its months-long trek, once a negotiation begins it’s too late to go back and reconsider the assumptions that shaped your preparations.

In practice, assumptions limit a negotiator’s ability to find value they didn’t realize was potentially on the table. For example, preparing a strategy based on certain expectations about what price the counterpart will accept discourages negotiators from working to discover whether they can do better than those expectations. And when something unexpected comes up—the counterpart has some interest you didn’t know about, or is worried about a risk you didn’t think would affect them—it’s too late to prepare accordingly. The middle of a negotiation is the worst possible time to prepare for it.

Of course it’s not possible to prepare for a negotiation without making any assumptions. Instead, well-prepared negotiators work to make the best assumptions—they think carefully about what value the counterparty is looking for, what risks the counterparty perceives, what compromises they’d make and what’s non-negotiable from their perspective. But no matter how carefully you analyze these things, you will absolutely be wrong about them. It’s simply not possible to perfectly anticipate all the things that take a negotiation in an unexpected direction. Your assumptions will be wrong about some things all of the time, and (if you negotiate long enough) wrong about everything sometimes.

So negotiators must remember that they will occasionally be hampered by inaccurate assumptions, no matter how carefully they prepare. In fact, the more you prepare for a negotiation, the more detailed your preconceptions are likely to be, potentially magnifying the problem. But negotiators have an advantage the Scott expedition didn’t—it’s possible to test for inaccurate expectations and defeat them inside the negotiation by using careful, effective communication.

Good communication solves the problem of inaccurate assumptions by forcing negotiators to work outside of those expectations. If a negotiator is careless with their communication, they may ask simple yes-or-no questions based on what they expect the answer to be. Could you accept this price? Is a thirty day term acceptable? Can you meet this service level? But those questions don’t elicit any information outside the assumptions behind them. The questioner’s assumptions limit the scope of the communication, and discourage answers outside those assumptions. A better practice is to ask open-ended questions that invite more detailed, conversational responses. That way the answers can range outside of the questioner’s assumptions.

In other words, if a negotiator wants a proposal back from her counterpart as fast as possible and expects it can be done within six weeks, the easiest question to ask is simply whether that’s possible. She’s testing the truth of her assumption, but not the accuracy of it. The answer is likely to just be “yes,” confirming that the assumptions were true, but omitting that it would be possible to turn the work around much faster than that. In that case, the negotiator’s question prevented her from operating outside the scope of her communications. If instead she asked open-ended questions about how quickly the counterpart could move on the proposal—“How fast can we get it? Why can’t we get it faster than that?”—she might find out that the limiting factors are something within her control, such as the availability of information she didn’t know her counterpart needed. The broader questions, while they might seem more time-consuming, would create a conversation that answers the questions she didn’t know she needed to ask.

We often tell our clients that they don’t know what’s possible in any given negotiation until they ask. Knowing how to ask is one of the most important skills in negotiation. Narrow communication allows our assumptions to shape the exchange of information by limiting both questions and answers. Good, open communication flips that problem on its head by using a fluid conversation to reshape the parties’ assumptions. The next time you prepare for a negotiation, ask yourself whether you know what to expect. Are you communicating thoroughly and fluidly enough with your counterpart to be able to tell whether all those assumptions are wrong?