by James Frankel, Partner, Venable LLP
DesignIntelligence (DI): As a lawyer, for many years you’ve worked with very powerful people in New York real estate on complex and sometimes difficult negotiations and business decisions. What have you learned about navigating the people side of those interactions?
Jamie Frankel (JF): It’s important for me to start any relationship or negotiation by initially learning about what’s important to the person or people in the “room” in order for me to achieve the business goals of my clients.
To develop that level of knowledge I use a question—“The Relationship Question”—which was taught to me by a mentor many years ago, and it has served me quite well over time.
The answer(s) to that question, along with three other related questions, allows me to know what the counterparty values that day (be it one person or a “committee”), whether or not it relates to the transaction or dispute. I call these “The Four Questions.”
I drive my negotiations around what the counterparty tells me that day in response to the Relationship Question and the three other questions.
I’ve found that no amount of off-site research can provide the answer(s) to the Relationship Question as surely as asking that question at the beginning of that day’s negotiation, whether it’s a face-to-face or electronic meeting.
The answer to that question calls for concentration and on-the-spot analysis. The counterparty usually takes time to consider their response because the question is invasive and personal. Fortunately for me and my clients, the question invariably draws out an answer or response which allows me to, at that time or soon thereafter, create value for the counterparty as I work toward achieving my client’s goals.
Over the years, I’ve learned that by first creating value for the counterparty, I can then focus on what’s important to the transaction and to my client.
I’ve been able to work my way through failure and success in negotiating high-stakes matters by using this process domestically as well as internationally.
DI: What are those four questions?
JF: I developed this process by integrating what I’ve learned from my mentors. To the uninitiated, this process can appear difficult, but in actuality the process and four questions are quite simple.
The opening question is designed to find out what’s important to the counterparty, either inside or outside the transaction, on that day. The Relationship Question is centered around how the counterparty defines personal and professional success in their future.
The first question: “If we were sitting in this room a year from now, or three years from now, what has to have happened, both professionally and personally, for you to feel good about your growth, both personally and professionally?”
When I secure the answer to that question, I know I’m going to be able to develop a relationship with the counterparty or the room and have a more efficient and rewarding negotiation for my client. The question is used in multiple forums and geographic arenas, whether domestic or international.
I’ve found that wherever I’m working, the human condition is paramount and is driven by what the counterparty values. The Four Questions are designed to get to that point early on in each day’s relationship. The questions are focused on the obstacles which the counterparty encounters in moving forward to their definition of personal and professional success.
DI: What you’re looking for is openness?
JF: I’m looking for the counterparty to recognize that I’m addressing them within the context of the transaction in a way that does not directly relate to the project or dispute at hand.
Their answer tells me what I need to know to be successful in behalf of my client. I ask the question daily in different ways because what’s important to the counterparty can change daily and often does.
Learning what the counterparty defines as important to them that day—at that time—allows me to navigate the conversation around the negotiation so that I can create a win for the counterparty and then for my client.
The process works quite well whether the counterparty is one person or a committee (whatever that might be).
DI: Do people ever give you personal answers?
JF: Most often they do; it’s rare if they don’t. People know what they want and what’s disturbing them because they think about it throughout the day and night, when they wake up, before they go to sleep.
We all have pressing issues that may be centered on what we do in our professional or personal lives, and those issues stay paramount throughout the course of the day, the month, the year or the project.
When they see that I’m focused on what’s important to them and how they define success, by way of the Four Questions, they begin to experience something different from what’s usual within the traditional negotiating setting.
I’m asking them about themselves, and that’s unusual and quite out of place. Most often the answer I get starts out with the counterparty making a statement such as, “That’s an interesting question,” or, “No one’s ever asked me that.”
With an answer in hand, I know that a different kind of relationship has been initiated and they know that as well. I can then begin to focus on what’s important to my client with the expectation of more efficiently achieving those goals.
I’ve never had anyone not respond to the Relationship Question. I’ve realized that an important part of the process is the delivery and context within which I ask the question. I’ve worked hard during these many years to be able to enter into an early stage relationship with the room or the counterparty in a sincere way. The questions and related answers provide the key that most often unlocks the door to a successful negotiation, as my clients define success.
DI: Where do you go from there? What is the second of the Four Questions?
JF: The remaining three questions focus on what may be preventing the counterparty from achieving personal and/or professional success.
Having provided professional services all these years, I feel that I can address the answers to the Four Questions in a unique way that opens doors and allows the counterparty to receive something of value from me that they hadn’t considered or didn’t have access to in their world.
I’m addressing their vision of their future without having spoken a word about the project/negotiation at hand or about me. It’s not off-putting, rather it’s engaging on a quite different level.
I make sure that during this initial part of the conversation I avoid talking about myself, my firm or my client. I’m just focused on the counterparty and the obstacles they’ve encountered to achieving their vision of personal and professional success.
DI: When you’re asking them the Four Questions, at what point does the conversation shift from being focused on the needs of the counterparty to the goals of your client?
JF: In addressing the obstacles that the counterparty is experiencing, I’ll eventually and efficiently begin to refer to the project at hand.
The fact that I first focused on them sets me apart in such a way that I can begin to focus on how we might work together to achieve their goals, as I begin to do the same for my client.
DI: So, you communicate the value your firm delivers by telling your story framed within their story.
JF: Exactly. That’s a great way of putting it.
DI: When you’re in a room with people who don’t know your capabilities, where you aren’t pre-qualified, how do you start that conversation?
JF: I look for a fertile point in which to initiate my process. If one is not forthcoming within the first 15 minutes, I’ll create that point.
If I haven’t been pre-qualified, my job is to get pre-qualified during the beginning of that meeting. If the counterparty knows nothing about me or my law firm, I weave my experience and relationships into the conversation.
DI: How do you navigate a situation where strong politics are part of the dynamic of a multiparty relationship?
JF: If I’m going into a room filled with certain people with strong political interests, I’ll do my research beforehand. I use strong eye contact, the “power of the pause,” and I address them by first name. My job is to provide efficient solutions using the law, the facts and what’s important to the counterparty in order to address the needs of my client.
DI: Suppose you have an open conflict. Something quite serious has happened and you’re trying to negotiate on behalf of your client to settle a major conflict. There’s a lot of money on the line. How do you deal with managing conflicts and bringing groups of people to resolution?
JF: I’ll not usually go into such a meeting alone. There’s great value in having an experienced colleague with me. That’s true whether the room contains two people or 20.
My colleague and I need to efficiently and quickly understand the dynamics, the people and the mood. Multiple “side-bar conversations” are difficult to grasp if I’m alone. I need to be able to retrieve and note the issues early on so I can start addressing the key issues that need to be handled first, which are those that belong to the counterparties.
I work to avoid failure. Failure, to me, in this context, is defined as being engaged in multiple disputes rather than being inside of a solution. Failure is having multiple unnecessary meetings rather than one or two meetings in which to achieve “success.”
DI: In high-stakes negotiations, there’s a lot going on both intellectually and emotionally. How can we master ourselves to navigate successfully?
JF: Relieve the stress. For all sides to be working efficiently, the parties can’t function well or at their highest level if they’re coming from a place of fear or stress. My priority is to identify those points and to get them off the table. My process is designed to do that. (Of course, there may be exceptions to this approach, in which case I’ll conduct myself accordingly.)
DI: Jamie, you’ve given us the benefit of decades of your wisdom and knowledge in the way you practice, the way you look at the world, and the way you look at these complex, high-stakes situations. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
JF: If there’s a legacy to leave on this subject, it is to provide insight to others. I believe three concepts are
important to mention in response to your question:
a. Stay relevant and continuously build new substantive skillsets.
b. When you start your career, there’s a steep learning curve of professional growth, but over the years, professionals begin to “flat line” and that should be frightening and avoided.
c. The learning curve never stops and it’s most often very steep. Getting off that learning curve takes the professional into the world of those that can be easily intermediated.
Jamie Frankel is a partner in the national law firm Venable LLP. He advises owners, architects, engineers and construction companies on projects and transaction related to the built environment. Jamie counsels on project structuring, transactional documentation, and dispute resolution. He brings a multidisciplinary background and creative problem-solving skills to every client matter. Jamie also offers intermediary and business advisory services. He created the Curtain Wall Risk Management Program (CWRM) in 2014 to address the risks associated with innovative, high-performance façade systems.
Previously, Jamie founded a construction industry practice group within a major national law firm. He was also an assistant attorney general in the Claims and Litigation Bureau for New York State. In that role, he defended state agencies engaged in developing highways, buildings, and other infrastructure projects. Jamie also served as general counsel of AIA-New York for 14 years.