Some people are born with a natural talent for negotiation and for influencing others. We all know some of them. They persuade effortlessly, they melt opposition, and they get the result they want. What about the rest of us? For those not born with this natural talent for negotiation and influencing, the question is: what can we do to enhance the skills we do have? In other words, what can we learn to do better?
Dwight D. Eisenhower, talking about US foreign policy at the end of the 1950s, said: “Firmness in support of fundamentals, with flexibility in tactics and methods, is the key to any hope of progress in negotiations.” How can this observation be applied to the negotiations we undertake in our professional lives?
The first thing to think about is the range of different styles you can use when negotiating. You need to have an understanding of them all, and when to use them. You already have a natural style; but it’s also useful to think about styles you encounter in others, or which you might use in situations where your natural style isn’t right. Let's consider three of them.
The competitive style: negotiators using this style are combative and argumentative. They typically take up very strong and specific positions, and make no (or very few) concessions. They may open with very high demands – which are generally unrealistic in the circumstances – causing the other side to react negatively by making a low counter offer, or no counter offer at all. They reveal little information to the other side, and neither do they try to understand, or truly listen to, the other side. The competitive negotiator believes that one side wins, and the other side loses. This approach can work – but if it does not, it will result in delay, polarisation, and little hope of any future relationship between the parties.
The co-operative style: the co-operative negotiator will put the interests of their client first but will try to be fair to the other side, and to behave in a way which maintains good working relationships all round. He or she will listen to the other side and try to understand the opposing position, and may offer reasonable concessions in an attempt to get a fair deal. Mutual interest and mutual gain (as opposed to a win-lose situation) drive the co-operative negotiator. If everyone in a negotiation has a co-operative style, there is a strong chance of getting a good result for all parties – but this style will not work against a competitive negotiator (who will take all the concessions given but will rarely be persuaded to change from their own style to a co-operative one). Note that whilst competitive negotiations can become delayed and entrenched, co-operative negotiations can lose direction and impetus, which can be almost as damaging.
The principled style: this is a term coined by Roger Fisher and William Ury, in their book Getting to Yes. It's a hybrid style of negotiation that involves several elements, some of which are:
- Separate the people from the problem. Put all your effort into solving the problem, rather than throwing your weight around or exploiting perceived weaknesses in personalities on the other side.
- Focus on interests, not positions. Try and find where the mutual interests of the parties are, and focus on those, rather than taking an inflexible opening position. If starting positions are inflexible, creative potential solutions may be overlooked because they can’t match the stated position being taken by one of the parties.
- Always use objective criteria when making judgements. Take what the other side say at face value and then seek to verify it objectively using further questioning or investigation (rather than, say, dismissing it because of a lack of trust in the other side)
The key to this style is objectivity – looking at a problem rather than focusing on the people (or subjective issues) and using objective criteria when making decisions. This enhances the rationality of what is said or done and promotes a positive outcome. The principled style is useful to preserve good relations between parties: for instance in employment disputes, or construction disputes, or in family disputes. (So often in these areas, personal and subjective issues can take over and prevent an effective negotiated settlement being reached quickly).
What if we can’t agree?
One of the key principles for principled negotiation is to think of what your best alternative to a negotiated agreement is, and keep this in mind. For example, if you are buying a house and cannot agree suitable terms with the vendor, your best alternative may be to walk away and find another house to buy. Or it may be to offer some more money. There is always a best alternative even if your client does not, or you do not, like it. Do not reveal it – if it is strong then revealing it may appear threatening to the other side; if it is weak then you will have given too much away.
The most effective use of the “best alternative” approach is to measure and evaluate your opponent’s options (other than a negotiated agreement). This can be used to focus your client’s mind on the options which the opponent has as well as the options your client has. Thinking about these carefully beforehand can help you anticipate the boundaries of the negotiation, and which tactics you should use. You will also be able to use the “best alternative” approach to manage your client’s expectations on outcomes.
Just as important as the style you use on the day – and often overlooked - is all the thinking and planning to do beforehand. Planning for a negotiation is not difficult, but many negotiators do not prepare adequately. With no planning it is hard to be flexible; since there has been little thought beforehand about possibilities and options, when they come up they have to be considered on the spot. On the other hand, the well-prepared will be able to respond in a timely way to any options given by the other side, or create their own, confident that they understand their own side’s boundaries.
At the very least, you should think about the following:
- What does your client want to achieve and why?
- What do you think your opponent wants to achieve and why?
- What are the relevant options; have you discussed all of these with your client?
- What negotiating style does your opponent have and how should you respond?
- What strategy do you want to use?
- What is your best alternative to a negotiated agreement? What is your opponent’s best alternative?
- What potential concessions might you be prepared to make, and when?
- What settlement options are available?
These practical questions will give you the background to make decisions confidently during the course of the negotiation.
The negotiation toolkit
What techniques make a difference to negotiation?
Be flexible. You are aiming to keep the negotiation moving towards a good outcome for your client, and an acceptable outcome for the other side if possible. A few ideas:
- Break a deadlock in negotiations by using well framed “what if…..” questions such as “What if I was able to get my client to…...”
- Try to find some common ground with the other side and acknowledge it early on, as this will build trust
- Win concessions, or at least stimulate creative thinking, by asking the other party to provide a solution: “How can we [meaning you] solve this problem” – without having committed to any solution.
Listen. Accomplished negotiators always listen carefully to what is said by the other side, and make notes of particularly important points. You should also do this with your own client. Aim to have a good understanding of what is wanted, but also the background and reasons – and dig deeper if there are gaps where you need to get information or clarification.
Ask questions. Obtaining more information about your opponent’s position is vital. Ask straightforward, clear questions, and know when to use an open question (inviting an expansive answer) and when to use a closed question (answered with a simple yes or no).
- Use questions to obtain information about your opponent’s underlying interest rather than their stated position or demands
- Seek specific facts so you are able to verify what is being said
- Use direct questions that your opponent must say yes or no to, avoiding rhetorical questions, which provide the answer in the question.
Reveal information. Revealing information about your interests is likely to increase the chance of your opponent revealing information about their interests.
- Encourage information flow with questions such as “What is more important to you: A or B?”
- Be clear about issues you prefer not to address in the negotiations and those that you definitely will not address. How will you handle questions about these areas?
- If you reach a deadlock, it is time to start the flow of information again, otherwise things will become entrenched.
Completing the negotiation
If your negotiation has been successful don't forget to check the points of all terms to ensure that there can be no misunderstandings – it is surprising how many people forget to do this, later to find that each party has a different interpretation of what has been agreed. Check that you have covered all the items of interest to your client, and who will draft any written settlement.
It is important to bear in mind that in professional life the objective is not always to “win”. In certain instances, the objectives may be to ensure that the client pays the bill, returns when they want further advice, and preferably recommends you to other potential clients who may instruct you. If these are your goals, you may need to adapt your approach.