Language Impacts Negotiations

Negotiation is about communication. Recently Facebook bots that were designed to learn how to negotiate were allowed to interact with each other in order to learn how to negotiate. For the full story have a look at this article. It got me thinking about the importance of the fluid nature of language and of the assumptions we make while negotiating, especially how language impacts negotiations.

First let’s talk about the robots, because the idea of an army of negotiating robots that can reach super efficient deals is mildly concerning to a mediator who helps parties reach agreements. The robots, due to a flaw in their programming, developed a way of using English to more efficiently negotiate between the machines. They realized that language impacts negotiations and they developed a language to negotiate.

The problem? The way the bots used English wasn’t understandable to human English speakers. Researchers point to the way that English is modified in niche communities to become more efficient. Jargon or industry speak is an obvious example of the modification of language in groups but examples include regional dialects as well. In effect the flaw in the programming of these bots exposes a potential source of conflict in negotiation. While jargon and regional colloquialisms can make negotiation more efficient it will only do so if both sides of a negotiation have the same understanding of the language used.

Industrial Use of Jargon

The use of jargon is common in a lot of industries. It may even be used successfully to negotiate among agents in the same industry. A risk of miscommunication arises from one of two potential sources 1) when the meaning of the jargon is not well settled 2) when the people in the know attempt to communicate with people who are not in the know.

When the Meaning of Jargon is not Well Settled

There are lots of reasons that the meaning of jargon may not be well settled. In her article about specialized language Peterlicean notes “[Specialized] words evolve” and changes to language driven by the goals, setting, and psychological state of actors.

Communication Outside Industry

Even when the meaning of jargon is well settled within an industry when it leaves the industry all bets are off. Consider this oft used example from medicine:

jargon | Language Impacts Negotiations

Nearly everyone is familiar with the colloquial use of SOB. Patients reading over their doctors’ shoulders may feel as though the doc is being more than a bit unprofessional. However inside the medical community SOB is universally recognized as Short Of Breath. What a clinician sees as an objective observation, an untrained observer may interpret as an insult.

Language gone wrong

Sometimes both unsettled meaning and differences in industry collide. Years ago, as a paramedic, I was called to give testimony at a coroner’s inquest. The inquest involved the death of a man who had suspected excited delirium. After twenty minutes on the stand giving my account of what happened the lawyer turned to me and asked if I thought the patient suffered from ED.

In medical circles excited delirium is not generally referred to as ED. ED as a place is the emergency department. ED as a diagnosis is erectile dysfunction. So I am sitting on the stand, with the jury seated to my left and the coroner presiding and my mind goes into overdrive.

“Where is he going with this?” I think. As I process the question and consider how I was expected to answer a question about the deceased man’s erectile dysfunction. The lawyer grew impatient and repeated the question. After my initial pause, it occurred to me what ED he was referring to. I answered the question and he moved on.

In this case, I was faced with a party from a different industry using jargon, the meaning of which was not well settled. The result was a period of confusion even though I was an expert that was familiar with the topic we were talking about. When faced with the use of jargon my automatic assumption was that the lawyer had the same experiences as me so when he sent the message I interpreted it to mean what it would have had I said it.

In a highly contextual trial it was easy enough to sort out. Consider how a miscommunication over email would propagate. Without any of the cues that a misunderstanding has occurred clarity becomes impossible. In the setting of a negotiation a deal can’t happen. Lack of cues about misunderstanding isn’t necessarily limited to email. Sending negotiators not involved with your business to negotiate with instructions can lead to similar misunderstandings.

Cultural Impacts of Language

When negotiating we need to remain alert to another cause of shifting meaning for words.

When I was a teenager my uncle from the united kingdom came for a visit. We were in a relatively crowded store when he turned to me and asked loudly “should we pick up some fags for your dad?.” My jaw dropped. People in the store shifted their focus on to my uncle. “What he doesn’t smoke any more?”

Culture impacts both what you say and what message you hear. When conducting cross cultural negotiations it helps to have someone with experience in that culture on your team. In any case you should seek clarification on things that seem out of context or not quite right. You want to avoid reacting and potentially damaging the relationship over a word or phrase that means drastically different things to the two parties.

It’s All About Communication

If the parties have different ideas about what words mean, negotiations become challenging. Facebook’s robot overlords understood the importance of exact and efficient language in negotiations, but in the end the real world isn’t defined by robots in exact terms. Real negotiations occur across industry and cultural lines. Real negotiators are alert to potential misunderstandings and ask clarifying questions because without understanding there can never be a deal.

When parties are challenged trying to understand each other mediation can be of great benefit. Mediators are perhaps above all else communication facilitators. Ensuring that all parties to a negotiation are expressing their interests and that those interests are understood is a primary task of a mediator.

Wakely Mediation provides mediation services for employers, unions and employees that help bridge communication gaps of all kinds. I have experience in breaking down communication barriers between industries and between culturally diverse people. If you think I may be able to help with your conflict please contact me.

Do you think language impacts negotiations? Has Jargon or unsettled language ever hurt your negotiations? How did you recover? Let me know in the comments.

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