How to ensure mutual understanding in a negotiation

By Bradley Chowles March 29, 2021 | 3 min read

There’s an old Buddhist story involving a group of blind men who encounter an elephant on their travels. Each attempts to describe the creature to the others based on their sense of touch, but they can’t reach a mutual understanding to agree on what exactly it is in front of them. This leads to accusations of dishonesty, heated tempers, and an all-out brawl.

So why couldn’t the men agree on what the elephant looked like? Well, each man was touching a different part of the large mammal’s body. One felt the tusks; another the tail; another its ears; another its flank, and so on. Even though all the men encountered the same animal, they had incomplete information – and refused to seek clarification on why their impressions varied so dramatically. This left everyone angry, confused, and alienated. (Apart from the elephant, who was presumably thrilled with the impromptu massage.)

Establishing a Mutual Understanding is Key

This story highlights why mutual understanding is essential for any productive conversation – but especially in a negotiation. If you can’t agree on the fundamentals, there’s a slim chance that the eventual outcome will satisfy both parties. Effective negotiators know the importance of being able to “playback” information from the other party. This helps clarify common ground, surface and clarify differences, and strengthen the relationship.

Let’s go over a few of these “playback” techniques.

Test and summarize the other party’s position

As you might recall from our previous articles, Test and Summarize is a relationship-building negotiation behavior that encourages cooperation and communication. This is precisely why it’s such an effective way to clarify a point and ensure mutual understanding in a negotiation. Not only are you showing the other party that you’re willing to cooperate and build a long-term relationship, but you’re also doing so in a way that strengthens your own understanding of the entire situation.

As a quick refresher, the Test and Summarize technique involves paraphrasing what the other party says, and then asking them to confirm that your understanding is correct. When you’re doing this, however, just make sure not to embellish or manipulate. The goal here is to find that common ground, not to twist their words to serve your own self-interest.

Confront and clarify your differences head-on

If you ever find yourself in a contentious situation – be it in a sales negotiation, supplier negotiation, or an internal negotiation – mutual understanding is of paramount importance. How are you meant to address the elephant in the room if you’re talking about its tusks, while the other person thinks you’re talking about its tail? This leads us to the other “playback” skill: clarifying and confronting differences.

Confronting differences is valuable for a number of reasons. For starters, you’ll be clear on the scope and severity of all differences before attempting to solve the problem. Without doing this, you risk wasting time and resources on a solution that doesn’t even fit the situation. Confronting differences also makes everyone feel better about working through the conflict, by initially focusing on areas of agreement. And by setting out to articulate core issues of contention, you’re able to stay in the (healthy) tension until everyone is clear about what the problem is.

So how should you confront and clarify differences?

We’ve identified four steps that can be applied to practically any negotiation situation, which will minimize the chance of misunderstanding and illuminate any and all points of contention.

  1. Identify common ground and areas where both parties agree
  2. Describe remaining disagreements as you see them
  3. Ask the other parties for confirmation, and for their thoughts on the disagreements
  4. If necessary, continue until everyone agrees on what differences remain

With everyone on the same page about where disagreements lie, it will be that much easier to approach an effective solution that leads to a mutually beneficial outcome.


RED BEAR Negotiation Company is a global performance improvement firm dedicated to maximizing the profitability of the agreements negotiated with customers, suppliers, partners, and colleagues. If you’re interested in empowering your sales team with world-class negotiation skills, contact us for more information.


One of the first steps to becoming a master negotiator is to learn 5 key negotiation behaviors and how they work within the 3D Negotiation Model to your benefit.
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