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“Metaphors, Analogies Are Useful, And Also Revealing”

By Marty Latz

“This negotiation is a marathon. It’s going to take a long time to achieve our goal, and it will be tough. Some of our steps might even be painful. But we must be persistent and focus on what we want to achieve long-term.”

When was the last time you heard or used a metaphor or an analogy in a negotiation?

The answer to this question is important, for we often use metaphors and analogies in negotiations, but rarely do so consciously and with strategic foresight.

In fact, the use of metaphors and analogies can have a powerful impact on our ability to control the agenda as well as to discern the true interests and needs of our counterparts.

As noted by Thomas H. Smith in his article “Metaphors for Navigating Negotiations” in the Harvard Negotiation Journal, metaphors operate “covertly to gain tacit agreement on direction, means and ends without full description or rationale. It constrains a discussion, focusing on certain concerns while masking others.”

So how should we evaluate the impact of metaphors and analogies when others use them, and when should you use them in your negotiations?

Consider the following factors in making these decisions:

1. Be conscious about metaphors and analogies.

The obvious first step is to consciously analyze the negotiation metaphors or analogies, including those mentioned by your counterpart or those you might consider using.

Simply becoming more aware of their impact will sensitize you to the strategic goals your counterpart might be attempting to achieve by using them.

For example, when your counterpart says “We’re all playing on the same team,” he is communicating — on the surface — that he believes you share mutual goals and interests.

But he also is communicating that his mindset and approach, overall, is fairly competitive. “Playing” on “teams” most often implies that you must be “playing” against someone else and suggests a win-lose attitude.

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October 2005