The answer, according to Chris Voss, is not to. Don’t negotiate with them. This certainly does not mean that you should simply tell them what you want from them, giving them no option, except to look for another job. Doing so would either cost you a great teacher, or completely demotivate them and create a hostile environment, likely with ripple effects throughout your school. But you should not negotiate with them in the usual sense of the word either. You should neither try to “get to yes”, nor “split the difference” or try to find some sort of bargain and mutually acceptable compromise. Rather you should negotiate as a pilot would negotiate a tricky turn, and aim for nothing less than the very best outcome possible for all involved (you, this teacher, and your entire school).
The secret here, according to the author of Never Split the Difference, is not so much to be highly convincing or to master the “art of the deal”, but rather to be a great listener. As the teacher walks into your office, you do not yet know why they are against your solution. As a matter of fact, they do not necessarily know either. They might be able to tell you what they want and do not want, but they might not be fully conscious of the needs that drive both. The secret that will help you negotiate the situation successfully is thus to uncover as much as possible about it.
Step 1 - Be a Mirror
To obtain precious information, you will need your counterpart to be open, i.e., to talk a lot, and honestly; which means that you will need to build trust. In his book, Voss lays out several techniques to do so. A first set will help you build rapport, a one-to-one connection that facilitates exchanges between two people. This includes active listening, which means remaining silent and paying close attention, not only to what the other person is saying, but to how they are saying it (choice of words, body language), and thus to what they are really saying, by reconstructing both the thought process and the emotional experience behind their words. Importantly, you will want to demonstrate this understanding by pausing, nodding, mirroring (imitating postures and gestures, but also paraphrasing, repeating ideas with an inquisitive tone, as well as reinforcing: “that’s right”), and responding appropriately (asking clarifying questions, organizing, summarizing), thus espousing and maintaining the flow of the conversation. To help people talk, labeling (naming your counterpart’s emotions) can also be effective. Inducing calmness and closeness, it helps the other person think out loud—just like using a soft, slightly slow voice radiating reason, which should be used in alternance with a more lively and positive tone signaling encouragement and optimism.
Taken together, these techniques constitute a strategy that Chris Voss calls “tactical empathy”: using your understanding of the other person’s perspective to your advantage as a negotiator. The name might sound cynical, likely because Voss was a F.B.I. negotiator, used to deal with kidnappers, terrorists, and the like. As a school leader, you have an additional powerful tool in your arsenal: authentic empathy. You can and should truly care about your interlocutor and work with them to find out what their best interest is, and how it can align with the greater good of your community. This will allow you to uncover the real reason(s) why your Geography teacher does not want to go along with your plan. It might be, for instance, that they are (consciously or not) anxious about its effects on their perceived competence and reputation.
Step 2 - Bend their Reality
The first step in negotiating a difficult situation is thus to identify the real source of the issue. As you do, gently steer the conversation in this direction and help your interlocutor realize what they actually need. This is what Chris Voss calls “bending their reality”, a psychological shift that marks a turn in the negotiation. In our example, your interlocutor places much of their identity and pride in being a respected Geography teacher. As a consequence, they oppose your plan, which they perceive as a threat. But what if you helped them see themself for what they really are: a great educator in general, and one that can serve as a model of excellent teaching across disciplines? This would lead them in the right direction and get you closer to your desired outcome. Yet, having uncovered what they need (being recognized as a great teacher, period), you will still need to work with them to discover how it can be aligned with the greater good of the school—which is a non-negotiable.
Step 3 - Create the Illusion of Control
To do so, a skilled negotiator will resort to Socratic questioning, a set of techniques that allow to lead a negotiation through leading questions, thus letting the other person feel like they are in control, all while drawing them to a predetermined conclusion. One such technique is “getting to no”. While most negotiation books will tell you how to force a “yes”, Voss notes that temporary and superficial compliance is usually not a good enough outcome. A “yes” from your Geography teacher could very well mean “yes, but I’ll start to look for another job tonight”, or “yes, but I’ll resent you and do the absolute minimum from now on”, etc. Despite appearances, you did not win that one—you lost a great teacher. You did not get what you wanted, which was to have this great Geography teacher take on a History class—not to move their body from one classroom to another but kill their spirit in the process. Rather than cornering them to say “yes”, empowering them to say “no” can guide both of you in the right direction. If your teacher is anxious about their reputation, help them realize that their refusal is self-defeating by laying out the alternative options. “Do you want to help with covers and duties instead? No!”. “Would you be interested in working part-time, then? No!”.
As you run out of options, the logical next step is to “make your problem their problem”, as Chris Voss says, for instance by asking them “what am I supposed to do?” This might seem like a risky strategy, but it won’t be if you let them take the wheel on a closed course, like a driving instructor. To build-in such a safety mechanism, make it clear that your problem includes non-negotiables. “For financial reasons, the school simply cannot open a class with only five students. My hands are tied. What do you want me to do?” A benefit, here, is that by giving your teacher a sense of control, you turn a potential confrontation into a collaboration. Ultimately, your goal is to get them to make the offer that you want—the one that is also in their best interest, and serves the school’s greater good. “Well, if I do teach History next year, you could let me use this experience to lead a PD workshop on transferable teaching techniques...”.
Just like that, you have not only led your counterpart to go along with your plan, but also to champion the underlying idea that great teachers should be flexible. This highlights the fact that expert negotiating can help discover even better solutions than the ones you had thought about. What is more, because you supported your counterpart’s sense of agency, you can be sure that they will honor your agreement and espouse the solution you co-created. This exchange is even likely to enhance their motivation and trust in you as the way you negotiated the situation made them feel heard, respected and empowered.
Conclusion - Voice, Choice and Predetermined Outcomes
In a sense, negotiating is very similar to teaching and learning. Just like in your classrooms, the conversations that take place in your office should promote voice and choice—so as to achieve predetermined outcomes. Through tactical empathy (voice), you can better understand what your interlocutor really needs. Through Socratic questioning (choice), you can help them realize it and devise with them a way to serve both their best interest and the greater good of the school community. In both cases, skilled negotiators are constantly looking for “black swans” as Voss calls them: critical information that sheds light on a previously unknown unknown, thus enabling breakthroughs towards a shared solution.