This is an guest article by What Matters At Work author, Harry Webne-Behrman.

I’ve worked with many individuals and work teams over the years, and I’m often impressed by the dedication and commitment people bring to delivering quality service in the face of obstacles. One of the under-explored challenges they face is that they are frequently spending inordinate amounts of energy and resources reacting to the crisis of the moment, rather than being guided by a clear set of Intentions, Values, and Practices that help them focus on What Matters. That’s why I’ve recently published, What Matters At Work, a learning Guide that helps all of us who are determined to provide outstanding leadership and service some important ways to do so.

What Matters At Work is organized as a series of thirty-three “Lessons,” each offering a lens into a practice that can help us clarify our focus and discern those things we truly value that should guide our efforts. It begins with “interior work,” learning and practicing methods for clarifying our Core Stories in order to discern our values and guide our efforts. As the course proceeds, readers are invited to engage with others to have critical conversations that can deepen our insights and broaden our reach and influence. Eventually, there are Challenges presented whereby the skills and tools that have been cultivated are applied to critical issues, such as workplace conflicts, engaging larger communities to manage transition, and gaining a broader understanding of What Matters; the results of these efforts can profoundly transform our organizations. Practice Scenarios and Worksheets are provided to allow all who are participating – which I hope is much more than the individual reader at the start of the experience – to offer important resources to the practice and implementation of these ideas.

One important skill set for innovation is the ability to collaboratively negotiate effective solutions to complex challenges that arise along the way. We define collaboration here as “working together to achieve a common goal or purpose.” Notice that collaboration is much more than simply “working together.” It is to do so “to achieve a common goal or purpose.” It is a process that engages participants in a genuine exploration of their common needs and interests, through which they seek mutually beneficial outcomes. It can be easily contrasted with coordination (where we communicate from our separate positions and needs, but try not to step on each other’s toes) and cooperation (where we seek to achieve our independent interests, rather than focus on those that are shared). Collaboration has the potential to invent new identities and ways of relating to one another, ways of forging a sense of “We” beyond “You” and “I” in our work together.

Here’s a method that can be especially beneficial when people are stuck, unable to consider ideas beyond those that they pre-conceive as being “the only options.” It helps us get out of the box that inhibits free-flowing idea-generation, prototyping, or other behaviors that we know benefit the creative process.

Six Stage Collaborative Negotiation Process

1. Assess personal/group needs, desired outcomes: Consider the burning questions you bring to the situation: “What Matters to me? What do I believe Matters to the group? What do we each seek as desired outcomes or results of our work together?” Substantive, Procedural, and Relational needs are all worthy of consideration. Substantive needs refer to the “stuff” being negotiated, such as program priorities, budget allocations, or staff roles. Procedural needs refer to the process by which we address the “stuff”: Is the process perceived to be fair, inclusive, with decision-making made in a broadly understood manner? Finally, Relational needs express concerns regarding trust, respect, honesty, safety, and similar issues that arise in relationships while negotiating the substance of our work together.

Take some time to clarify these responses before proceeding to a conversation with others. If you are facilitating such a process, be sure to clarify responses from each person participating in the conversation.

2. Establish ground rules
: In beginning the conversation, go through the ritual of establishing our expectations regarding how we might have a safe and constructive environment in which to discuss difficult, perhaps conflictive, issues. This ritual is important as a point of reference for maintaining such a space.

3. Identify initial positions
: Honestly discuss what you want from one another. Work hard to listen to one another, demonstrating a commitment to understand each other’s needs, interests, and concerns. People may enter the conversation with specific ideas regarding solutions – allow those to be surfaced as a starting point that is honest, even if it appears to be problematic as diametrically opposed positions are expressed.

4. Explore underlying interests/concerns/needs: Try to understand — together — the deeper “Why” at the heart of the conversation: “What are the interests, concerns, and needs that represent the Values and Intentions at the heart of the inquiry? How do these reflect issues that lie beneath the surface?” Patiently navigate this phase of the conversation, seeking to fully understand one another before proceeding towards solutions.

5. Develop mutually satisfying solutions
: Follow good problem-solving approaches at this point:

  • Taking one issue at a time;
  • Generate several possible responses to the concerns that have been expressed;
  • Defer judgment and clarify criteria by which eventual solutions might be assessed;
  • As appropriate, develop prototype solutions that can be tested;
  • Seek mutually acceptable criteria; and
  • Build agreements by a consensus of those engaged.

6. Evaluate outcomes (both process and solutions). Take time to review emerging Agreements, both in terms of the solutions and the process by which the group negotiated them. Use “Hallmarks of a Good Agreement” to evaluate how well the Agreements serve you:

  • Fairness in the eyes of those who negotiated them;
  • Balance, meaning all have a stake in implementation;
  • Realism, so the parties involved actually have the capacity to implement actions;
  • Specificity, clear enough to be actionable;
  • Self-enforcement, as much as possible, by those at the table;
  • Being Future-oriented, considering how we might address such issues as the naturally occur again.

It is often beneficial to test Agreements for a few days or weeks and then check back together to see how they are working or could be improved.

We have been using this Collaborative Negotiation Process for over thirty years, with impressive results. People who have been entrenched in obstructive behavior are often able to develop creative, meaningful solutions to problems and discover new opportunities to innovate together. Many have been inspired to take specific actions to improve their organizations. But I am also excited by how individuals see the benefits of developing such skills: To know for oneself where to focus energies can be a source of clarity and purpose that transcends the day-to-day grind and energizes one to gain a deeper appreciation for life. And is the end, this may truly be What Matters.

Interested in learning more about the philosophy and ideas behind What Matters at Work? Visit my blog at: or email me: [email protected]. You can purchase the What Matters at Work book at Amazon.