Negotiation is central to both law and life in general. As a former corporate lawyer, a large part of my role in acting for the firm’s clients involved negotiating with legal counsel for the other party in disputes and transactions. The goal was to reach a private agreement, without the need to take formal legal action such as litigation or arbitration. Negotiation also occurs regularly in day to day life, even though it may be conducted in a more informal way and therefore be disguised as mere dialogue. Even a discussion about a trivial matter such as what to have for dinner may include an element of negotiation. Negotiation is about communication and compromise. It forces both parties to listen to each other, reconsider their initial position and try to meet somewhere in the middle. Normally, some give and take is required in order to reach an agreement.
The word no is extremely powerful. It signals the end of the road and a refusal to engage in further discussion. It’s a bit like issuing an ultimatum to someone and saying “take it or leave it”. At the office, no was a word that I seldom used. Lawyers usually try to find solutions to problems. An important part of the role of a legal advisor is to advise on risk. The question was therefore not whether the client could act in a certain way, but what the legal implications would be if they decided to do so. In my personal life, it’s also a word that I try to avoid because compromise is the key to building and maintaining successful relationships. By contrast, acquiescence, the result of coercion, can be dangerous. It is entirely appropriate to say no and stand your ground. Where consent is an issue, no means no. End of story.
As I develop the concept of Anita’s Garden from a physical green space into an entity, I have found myself constantly engaging in negotiations with customers, suppliers and consultants. Lately, I have been finding that on the odd occasion when I have used the word no and really meant it, I have been met with forceful resistance which has left me taken aback. There is a fine line between tenacity and being perceived as pushy. While the former is an admirable quality, the latter can be a little off-putting. Furthermore, respect is an important attribute. Sometimes, you need to back down and respect someone’s feelings when they say no.
Even seemingly simple decisions can be based on complex and personal reasoning which may not be apparent to the other party. One is not necessarily obliged to disclose all of the factors which underpin their decisions. An incident of this nature arose recently in the context of business. As discussed in a previous blog post, we host volunteers who are provided with lodging and meals in exchange for some assistance around the garden. Every stay involves negotiation regarding a number of factors, starting with the dates and duration of the visit. One pair of travellers requested to stay for a fortnight when we technically had availability, as we had not made any reservations for that period of time. I responded by saying that we were sorry but unable to commit at this time. While I did not go into details, mum and I were discussing whether we should take another holiday around that time. To my surprise, I received a response from the pair a few days later. They reminded us of our availability for the dates they had requested and insisted that be allowed to stay for that period. Against this background, I stood my ground and re-iterated my initial position, signalling an end to the discussion. Thankfully, they accepted our decision and backed down.
The situation reminds me of another incident which occurred, this time in my personal life. This situation was slightly different to the one I outlined above. This time, I wasn’t given the option to refuse but was cornered into a rather awkward social situation through trickery and deceit. My best friend asked if I wanted to catch up with her over a meal at a restaurant in the city. We arrived at the restaurant, were given menus soon afterwards and placed our orders. To my surprise, while we were waiting for our food to arrive, my friend’s brother, his girlfriend and a guy I did not know walked into the restaurant and sat down with us. To cut a long story short, my friend had colluded with her family to set me up with someone they knew. Running into them at the same restaurant that evening was no coincidence, but rather a rather elaborate scheme they had concocted for us to get to know each other. Afterwards, it took some probing on my part before my friend admitted that the situation had been a total set up. I am not the kind of person who makes assumptions or jumps to conclusions without solid evidence, possibly the consequence of spending years working on contentious matters and poring over evidence as a lawyer. In her partial defence, my friend told me that she had decided to act in this manner because I may have shut the door on a possibility if she had asked for my permission beforehand. In other words, I might have said no. However, everyone has the right to refuse a proposal, whatever their reasons. Respect is key. Being introduced through friends is common in the dating world, but the parties are normally informed and agree to meet each other beforehand.
To close, this anecdote somewhat sadly illustrates how the failure to take no for an answer, or indeed place someone in a position where they do not even have the power to say no can damage a relationship permanently. We are no longer friends as a result of not only her actions but also her underlying reasoning, which hurt me on an even deeper level. To conclude, it is simply unacceptable to lie to someone as a means of avoiding negotiation and therefore the possibility of a proposition being declined.