Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on the ENR- Texas/ Louisiana website, June 1, 2010. The author is Patricia Kagerer, CSP, ARM, CRIS is Vice President Risk & Safety Management at Jordan Construction, in Dallas, Texas.

The AEC industry is changing faster than it ever has in its history. The economic downturn, new technology, owner demands, and work force challenges are a few of the factors driving this change. Industry organizations trying to survive on shoestring budgets and tight (to virtually nonexistent) profit margins are looking for ways to do more with less and increase efficiency in people, processes, and technology.

As the industry faces these challenges our people must be cognizant that what got us here may not necessarily get us to the place where we want to be. Employees must be willing to do things differently, take on more work, learn new technology, and improve and enhance communication and negotiation skills. No longer is being good enough good enough.

Construction is a technical, contractual, relational business. As a result the industry has its own fair share of conflict. Conflict is inevitable because owners, design teams, general contractors and subcontractors all have differing goals, opinions, and values. Throughout the course of a project, disagreements come up in the work environment simply out of seemingly benign scenarios. As such, construction professionals need to fine-tune their negotiation and conflict resolution skills to meet the day-to-day challenges that occur.

Creating Win/Win Strategies

People respond to conflict in a variety of ways. Many will respond by denying and resisting that the conflict exists. This often creates a big elephant in the room; and while the people involved continue in silence, the anger and resentment build. Sooner or later this situation leads to personal stress that can ultimately affect our overall wellbeing and lead to potential illness and physical and emotional distress which impacts our quality of work and productivity. As disagreements are left to fester and grow the probability of future, more intense disagreements increases. Problems continue and the elephant gets bigger and bigger until, one day, it finally explodes.

Some people rely on power and authority to resolve their issues. Some threaten and punish subordinates or rant and rave, wielding, alleged authority. For example, a superintendent may rip a subcontractor crew for a minor error. A few weeks later, the superintendent may need that same crew to stay late to finish installation in order to keep the project on schedule. Is that crew really motivated to stay late and perform in order to help out the superintendent who reamed them a few weeks ago? That’s doubtful. They may not stay late at all and the success of the superintendent is of no interest to them.

Performance Enhancement Through Negotiation

Negotiation skills improve our communication and interaction with others and enhance collaborative relationships. You and your team can practice the following skills to improve your ability to work effectively with others:

1) Speak – Plan in advance what you will say. Begin with a clear understanding of the problem formatted in a simple explanation of how each party sees it. Use “I” statements instead of “you” statements. Turn off your cell phones and devote the time and attention needed to resolve any issues.
2) Listen – Pay close attention to what is being said as well as the behavior of the other person and nonverbal cues in their body language.
3) Respect – We may not agree with another person but we can still listen and learn from their perspective. Fostering a genuine interest in others creates opportunities to forge more meaningful contacts and creates trust.
4) Know the Party – Identify the parties to the conflict and make sure that you are negotiating with the right person. Negotiating onsite with a foreman who has no authority regarding staffing and workforce issues is a waste of time.
5) Position/Interests – Distinguish between the position (what) – what the person verbalizes he or she wants and the interests (why) – the reasons the person wants it.
6) Explore Alternatives – More information about the problem may be needed before a solution can be decided upon. Examine other sources of information. Understand your own biases. Mediators can provide impartial assistance with the negotiation process.
7) Be Reliable – Follow through with negotiated agreements. The very work of negotiation implies a commitment toward whatever outcome has been decided.
8) Preserve the Relationship – Negotiation offers a non-adversarial approach to resolving conflict.

If conflict is managed effectively, relationships are preserved and often improved. When we create situations using effective negotiation practices, we create open dialogue that flows in two directions and ultimately leads to good decision-making. Effective negotiation requires the ability to resolve disputes and conflicts and a desire to interact with others to come up with solutions that are acceptable to all involved.

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