Why "You're Right" Is Wrong

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I’ve mentioned more than a few times I’m an avid reader. I recently finished a fantastic book, Never Split the Difference, by a former lead FBI hostage negotiator, Chris Voss. It’s an excellent book I probably need to read again because there is just so much incredible insight into the psychology and relational dynamics of effective negotiation. I’ll be the first to admit I’m a terrible negotiator. Occasionally I’ll sell something through an online group and I can expect that no one will just accept the asking price for the item I’ve listed. They’re looking for a deal. So they make a low offer, and I’ll accept even when I think my asking price is more than fair. Or sometimes the opposite happens where I stand firm on the price of an item and the buyer walks away. In both those cases I feel like I’ve lost. Even when I successfully sell an item at a lower price I feel like the other person came out on top.

I’d say I have a lot to learn about how to be a successful negotiator on Facebook and in life. Much of life is a negotiation. Have you ever asked your boss for a raise? If you’re married, you’ve likely negotiated with your spouse hundreds, if not thousands, of times. If you have children then you can relate to my angst of negotiating the bedtime routine with an illogical 4-year old. A lot of ministry boils down to effective negotiation as well. It’s about leading people to own their own spiritual growth and take action.

Much of life requires negotiation, but not the stereotypical strong-arming or bullying kind of negotiation where intimidation tactics are used to bend the will of the other person to agree with you. Not at all. Rather skillful negotiators practice active listening, empathy, and asking good questions repeatedly.

But, being an effective negotiator isn’t very easy especially if you like to give advice. I’ve often had closed door conversations with individuals and couples who are struggling with something - sin, addiction, hurt, or a habit - and they feel stuck. They come to me because they know they need to change. They agree something has to change and they want help. So I offer help. I offer some advice to try to help them get unstuck: “Have you tried this? Or what about that? Next time that happens, do this.”

Their head nods in agreement.

“Yes. You’re right, Pastor. I know this has to change. I should try that. Thank you for your help."

Most of the time when I take this approach it backfires. Nothing changes for the person sitting across from me. And thanks to Voss I have a better understanding of why this approach simply doesn’t work well for leading people toward lasting life change.

It has to do with the “you’re right” mentality. When someone you’re negotiating with says to you, “You’re right,” Voss says it’s all wrong. You’re not looking for them to say, “You’re right” because “You’re right” can mean many different things. Sometimes we say it when we’re irritated with the person we’re talking with and we just want them to shut up. Sometimes we say “You’re right” and we don’t actually agree with them! We’re simply acknowledging their legitimate right to have an opinion on the subject. It’s deceptive, but it happens all the time. 

In other words, sometimes people say, “You’re right,” when we don’t actually want to change. 

Just ask my teenager.

Voss says the single biggest breakthrough moment in a negotiation happens when his counterpart looks at him and says, “That’s right.” “That’s right” is what people say when they believe what they just heard was complete truth. When the other person says the magical words - “That’s right!” - they’re giving you permission to show them a new way. I realize this sounds silly, but think about it - when someone says to you, “That’s right,” it signals they feel understood. They believe you understand them and where they’re coming from; and, it also demonstrates ownership. I don’t have the research to back this up, but experience has shown me time and time again that lasting change happens best when a person owns the change - when they feel like the idea of change was their idea. They own the vision of their preferred future. And a third outcome, according to Voss, is that those words - “That’s right” - is an epiphany moment that you trigger in the other person. It establishes trust. 

Voss gives some really practical negotiating tips for creating an environment of understanding and trust that also is helpful in having life change conversations:

  1. Listen in and ask open-ended questions. Let the other person know you’re paying attention to what they’re saying. Avoid asking “Yes” or “No” questions. Instead ask, “What” and “How” questions.
  2. Use the mirroring technique by repeating the last three words someone said in the form of a question. For example, your friend says to you, “I’m really struggling with alcohol.” You can respond by mirroring the last three words as a question: “Struggling with alcohol?” That is an open invitation and they will keep explaining.
  3. Paraphrase. Listen closely and repeat back what you hear (e.g. “What you’re saying is…”) and be sure to communicate you understand their feelings. Use the example from #2: “What you’re saying is you’re struggling with alcohol and you’re afraid that your spouse is going to leave you.” Keep summarizing and keep the focus on them. Avoid asking: “Is that correct?” That’s a yes or no question. Just keep silent and let them fill the void. 

Personally when I’m in a coaching or counseling situation I really try hard not to give advice to the person to whom I talking. Rarely does this work out well. I believe whole-heartedly that a vision for a preferred future lies within each of us and it’s our role not to be advice-givers, but to be life change negotiators and to help others get to that vision of a preferred future by practicing listening in, asking open-ended questions, mirroring what they say, and paraphrasing. That vision is inside and sometimes people just need someone to help draw it out of them. 

Never Split the Difference is a book I believe every leader should read regardless of where you are on the organizational chart. It's that good. You can get it here. How are your negotiating skills? I'd like to know.