Knowing How To Negotiate The Non-Negotiables

Do you challenge the status quo?

School is full of non-negotiables.

These are the things that should be ‘definitely’ happening and they aren’t up for discussion. There’s no movement. They are locked in.

In some cases there are so many non-negotiables, it’s hard to keep up with them all. One school I know has non-negotiables for teachers, TAs, pupils, the learning environment and governors. If you actually did 1/6 of what was expected of you then you’d be off sick by Wednesday.

Some non-negotiables are actually what they say and there is no wriggle room. But some are unworkable, open to interpretation or just ill-conceived and plain daft.

Some non-negotiables are past their use by date and relate to a different era so we need to rock the boat and ditch them. Sometimes they contradict each other and/or are vague and confusing and aren’t really non-negotiables at all.

For example, here are two non-negotiables written into the above mentioned school’s  ‘Teaching Non-Negotiables’:

  • All books should be marked in time for the next lesson
  • Aim to have a good ‘work/life’ balance

One is a ‘should’ and the other is an aim. One asks you to unreasonably mark everything by the next lesson but in the next breath asks you to strike a balance and don’t burn out.

Clearly this is nonsense and the SLT need to wake-up and smell the coffee. Workload is intimately linked to wellbeing and so you can’t expect teachers to kill themselves to mark book after book by the next lesson. Have they not heard of the Fair Workload Charter?

Non-negotiables should be re-visited every year to make sure they are reasonable and understood. They shouldn’t be 15 pages long and they should be negotiated.

But how do you get them changed?

In my experience getting these things written-off is never easy unless you have someone on the team who is a skilled negotiator. You need someone who knows how to approach subjects and bring about change. You need someone to bring it up as a topic for discussion and then get SLT to see sense without them thinking they are under threat.

Some members of staff are good at fighting for their rights but their approach can be messy and full of friction. This doesn’t work well when you need to negotiate.

Chris Voss makes a brilliant point in his book Never Split The Difference. He notes that when we negotiate most of us tend to focus all our energies on what to say or do but forget how we are in terms of general demeanour and delivery. He knows a thing or two about negotiating – he was a former FBI hostage negotiator.

Okay, we aren’t in a hostage situation discussing school policies but his field-tested methods transfer across contexts and are effective in any situation. His advice is to think about the tone of our voices. To get somewhere he says,

Most of the time, you should be using the positive/playful voice. It’s the voice of an easygoing, good-natured person. Your attitude is light and encouraging. The key here is to relax and smile while you are talking.

How we are matters and how we say something and ask for things is important. I am not a good negotiator. I am a fighter and so tend to be more assertive which for discussions and getting things changed doesn’t always work.

Voss points to the work of Albert Mehrabian who created the 7-38-55 rule which is that 7% of a message is based on the words while 38% comes from the tone of voice and 55% from the speaker’s body language and face. These offer a useful guide to negotiators.

We can all learn to be better negotiators but some staff appear to be naturals. If you need something changed then get your chief negotiator to do the talking. You need to negotiate like the FBI.

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