Clear Communication: Avoiding a Serbian Bog in Negotiation

William Shakespeare Had the Right of It

“…And then is heard no more; it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing”. [Macbeth V,v,17].

Be honest: does this or does this not describe an experience you’ve had with someone with whom you were trying to communicate? Perhaps it was a negotiation of some sort, or you were trying to engage in some clear communication with another. (And if there was significant emotion involved, add an entire other layer). At the end of the exchange, assuming you wanted to understand what was being said, you scratch your head, pause, and ask yourself, “What the heck did he just say?” And if you or any other participant does not try to clarify what was said and/or meant, well, then, you have just taken the first step into what I refer to as the Serbian Bog of communication. Just remember: it’s easy to get in and very difficult to get out.

Serbian Bog?

This is a descriptive term for communication — actually conversation, now — that occurs when one or more persons does not understand what another has said, but continues with the conversation as if she did. The other side is is usually talking rapidly without pause. The other person may rightfully assume that he has been heard and understood, and will likely rely on that assumption. Meanwhile, she will proceed to nod her head, or show with her body language that she is on track with what he’s saying. They might continue in this vein for awhile until someone says something that jolts the other into the recognition that there’s been a fundamental misunderstanding somewhere. Now, if they care to clarify, they have to return to the beginning of the dialogue to discover where they went wrong. Sometimes when this occurs, one of the participants even accuses the other of being dishonest, as in, “You deliberately tried to mislead me”. Good will evaporates, mutual distrust arrives, and emotions may get out of hand. All of this, of course, could have been avoided if one of them had said something like, “I don’t understand what you just said. Try it again, I need to comprehend”. Or words to that effect….

Serbian Bogs are ubiquitous: board meetings, negotiations, classrooms, and in every environment where one or more persons is hesitant or afraid to ask questions. Why? Not always, but usually, because she or he does not want to appear “less than” the others. Or stupid.

Crawling Out….

I have observed many, many Serbian Bog occurrences in my career. The best approach, obviously, is to prevent them from happening in the first place, although depending upon the participants’ personalities and emotions, it’s not always possible. Here are some practical strategies for both avoiding the Serbian Bog, or once there, crawling out of it as quickly as possible:

1) Start at the beginning. Make sure the premise(s) that everyone is operating from are correct. State them clearly. Ask for assent and clarification from everyone. Obtain their agreement on the premise(s) before you proceed any further with the negotiation.

2) Ask plenty of questions during the negotiation. As in, “Did I understand you correctly that you will ….”, or, “Explain that to me again. I want to make sure I can commit to it”. Anecdotally, I have never met anyone who was offended by being questioned by someone else. (Police investigations and cross-examination excluded). Instead, I have found that most people are flattered that you care enough to understand what they say.

3) As you proceed, continue to obtain “buy in” from all of the participants to the negotiation. If there’s a snag or stall in the negotiations, try to tackle it as it occurs. If that’s not possible, agree that you will address it later in the communication and get their assent.

4) Acknowledge the fact that everyone is doing a good job of staying on track and discussing the difficult issues. Everyone likes acknowledgment.

5) Postpone the negotiation if necessary. If more research, facts, experts or any other objective criteria is pertinent, agree to continue the session to another day and time. Give each other the requisite time within which to gather appropriate facts and figures.

Know that your desire for clear, competent communication will really assist you in avoiding communication’s Serbian Bog.

One Response to “Clear Communication: Avoiding a Serbian Bog in Negotiation”

  1. Matt says:

    I'd like to share with you and your readers some ideas from our Negotiation Skills training with some tried and true tips on negotiation.

    First, we need to understand the concept of “shadow negotiation.” Shadow negotiation is the type of interpersonal communication and power plays that go on in the “shadows” or behind-the-scenes, which determine the amount of give-and-take there will be in the negotiation. For example, a co-worker who has done you a favor in the past might be expecting a return favor in the current negotiation without anything being said. It’s important when dealing with shadow negotiation to surface the rules and expectations being used in the shadows such as the expectation that compromise between two co-workers will be expected. Remember that a slight change in your position, such as surfacing what’s in the shadows, will create a dynamic shift in the negotiation. The question to be asked here is: what do each of us have in our minds that we need to surface before we begin negotiating?

    Negotiation is always about two things: substance (what people have to say about the issue) and the relationship (balancing the terms in the relationship such as equality and subordination). It’s important to realize that reaching resolution in the substance portion of the negotiation does not necessarily mean there is resolution in the relationship portion. Fisher and Ury in Getting To Yes, suggest “It is important to carry on negotiation in a way that will help rather than hinder future relations. The ongoing relationship is far more important than the outcome of a particular negotiation.” With this in mind, we should focus on what’s called integrative negotiation rather than distributive negotiation. Integrative negotiation focuses on “expanding the pie,” allowing for trade-offs and exploring issues from multiple angles – what we might call a win-win approach. Distributive negotiation is a win-lose approach which focuses on personal gain and ultimately can destroy the relationship.

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