Great negotiators understand human psychology, they learn to get
what they want in a psychologically aware and emotionally
The best negotiator I have encountered was a commercial lawyer I used to do business with over 15 years ago. He always appeared to be cool, calm and collected even when the temperature started to rise up. He always came prepared, he listened to the other side’s concerns or needs, he would creatively come up with various alternatives, he never embarrassed anyone with his intellect, he talked in easy-to-understand language, he was comfortable taking time out, he was firm but not aggressive, and he generally got what we wanted.
But his negotiation skills are, in my experience, rare. Negotiation is fundamental to business success, particularly as a leader. “Negotiation is life” according to Chris Voss in his excellent book Never Split The Difference in the sense it is “nothing more than communication with results”. A negotiation is any interaction where one party wants something from another party.
In this short essay (short for me) I will share six key negotiation strategies and tactics. There are many to choose from so look out for part two on this fascinating and critical life skill.
Six Key Negotiation Strategies and Tactics
1. Most Powerful Person In The Room Is The Person Who Cares The Least About The Deal
I have made the best deals when I have created a strong BATNA – the best alternative to a negotiated agreement (an acronym created by William Ury and Roger Fisher in their book Getting to Yes).
Before negotiating, it is common for negotiators to set a bottom line – if you are selling the lowest price you would accept or if you are buying the highest price you are prepared to pay. Setting a bottom line is helpful in preventing you from making a decision you may later regret. But often the bottom line is an arbitrary number which may result in you accepting a poor deal or rejecting a good deal.
It is better to compare any agreement against what you would do if you did not reach a negotiated agreement i.e. your best option if the negotiation fails.
An example for me is related to selling a business I helped build and grow. We created a competitive situation where we received multiple term sheets from private equity and strategic buyers, but none of them reached the valuation we wanted. Our BATNA, which we worked on in parallel, was a growth plan which involved an injection of new equity and debt. This meant we never got overly attached to the sales process and meant despite the time and effort and some abort costs, it was a relatively easy decision to revert to the growth plan.
You need to make sure your BATNA is a practical alternative. The better your BATNA, the greater your ability to improve the terms of any negotiated agreement.
2. Focus On Underlying Interests, Not Positions
To illustrate what I mean here, let’s say two children are arguing over who should have the last orange that’s left in the fruit bowl ( I appreciate this is unlikely but bear with me!). All the focus is on the orange – i.e. the position. It ends up with one child ‘winning’ the argument by grabbing it and eating it as they run away. It all ends in tears. It needn’t have ended up this way if the children had focused on their underlying interests. One child wanted to eat the flesh of the orange and the other child wanted to use the skin of the orange to make a cake. They both could have got what they wanted if they had listened to each other’s true interests.
The conflict here is not conflicting positions but differences in their needs, wants, desires, fears and concerns. Interests are the motivators behind the reason you choose a position – in the orange example one child was motivated to satisfy his desire for a juicy piece of fruit and the other to bake a cake. Behind conflicting positions there may lie compatible as well as conflicting interests.
So before and during any negotiation be clear on what your interests are and seek to find out the other person’s interests. Usually, there are multiple interests and often connected to our basic human needs including; safety, control, belonging and connection, recognition, and financial security.
3. Separate The Person From The Problem
Negotiations obviously involve human beings. We all have our own emotions, values, needs, experiences, biases and blind spots. These can help or hinder any negotiation. Every negotiator is focused on substantive issues e.g. terms, conditions, pieces, dates, numbers or liabilities. But also most good negotiators are focused on the relationship and maintaining at the very least a working relationship going forward.
The issue is that negotiators treat the problem or the substantive issue and the person as one. “The document is a mess” or “The message is incomprehensible” or “Your pricing is too aggressive”. These statements may be attempts to identify a problem but they feel like personal attacks. The other thing about entangling the problem with the person is that people infer assumptions about others from their stance on their substantive issue or viewpoints on the problem – “they are greedy” or “they are totally unreasonable”.
People assume you cannot achieve a good substantive solution in a negotiation along with maintaining or building the relationship. I disagree. A good substantive solution can often improve the relationship or a good relationship can make the substantive solution better for all.
The strategy should be to separate the position or the problem from the person. Deal with both separately. Don’t ignore the people issue if there is one, deal with it directly using psychological techniques e.g. learn how to recognise your counterparty’s perspectives, put yourself in their shoes or recognise and understand their emotions. Don’t deal with people’s needs or fears by making concessions on the substantive issues.
4. Master Yourself
The foundational skill of a great negotiator is to be a master of yourself. If you are going to master the external negotiation you must first master the internal negotiation. The main internal negotiation you need to have is between your heart and mind, the emotional self and the rational self. Can you think of a decision or a negotiation which left you feeling a bit ill at ease? This is probably the dissonance between your heart and mind i.e. an internal conflict.
So much of our focus is often on the external problem or goal that we fail to reconcile the needs and wants of our heart and mind. As Kwame Christian points out in his book Finding Confidence in Conflict the inner negotiation is about answering the following questions:
● What do we want?
● Why do we want it?
● Do we have what it takes to get it?
So how do you master yourself – no easy task! I recommend using Kwame Christian’s
Compassionate Curiosity Framework. The three steps are:
● Acknowledge Emotion – acknowledge your feelings, investigate what they may
mean, label them
● Compassionate Curiosity – get curious about the feelings without judgement, the needs behind the feelings and discover your true desires
● Joint Problem-Solving – find a solution which leaves you comfortable at the
rational and emotional level
The bottom line is emotional intelligence is essential to effective negotiation. When
you have reconciled the internal conflict, you are much more likely to succeed with the external conflict or negotiation. You will be much better placed to respond thoughtfully and regulate your emotions whatever the other party may throw at you (hopefully not literally!) during the negotiation.
5. Know Your Negotiation Style
Your (and the other’s) personal negotiation style will have developed from your childhood, your cultural upbringing and many other factors. No one has only one style but understanding your main preference will help you understand your negotiation strengths and weaknesses and those of the counterparties. With this knowledge, you will be better placed to flex your strategies and tactics to suit the situation and the person in front of you.
Chris Voss, the ex-FBI hostage negotiator, concludes from his research there are three main types: Analyst, Accommodator and Assertive.
They like to work on their own. They are methodical and analytical. They are thoughtful problem-solvers. They like to gather data and information. They focus on the problem or the goal rather than the relationship. They are sceptics who might be suspicious of being given things. The best way to negotiate with an Analyst is to use data and rational argument. Don’t expect quick answers to questions and don’t surprise them. If you are an Analyst type remember that positive non-verbal communication like a smile goes a long way and the other person is your most significant source of data.
They are relationship builders. They are great conversationalists. They are generally more on the optimistic side. They are not great timekeepers and are more likely to give something up first. They may overpromise and not be able to deliver on their promises. They don’t like silence and really appreciate being given something. If you are an Accommodator remember to share your concerns or needs and not to talk too much.
They are direct and candid. They love to win rather than concern themselves about the relationship. They can be emotional and aggressive. They like to accomplish things maybe at the expense of other better solutions. They don’t do silence, they like to talk rather than listen. Mutual respect is what they need. Mirroring works well with Assertive types. If this is your type be careful with your tone, work on being more approachable and hone your listening skills.
Each of the styles can be effective and therefore the goal is to be able to use elements of all three to suit the context and the person. The aim is to treat (i.e. communicate with) people how they want to be treated not how you want to treat them.
6. Trigger These Three Words To Transform Any Negotiation
You may think that getting to ‘yes’ or ‘you’re right’ should be your objective in any
negotiation and a sign you are winning the argument. But these can just be conversational niceties. According to Chris Voss ‘you’re right’ means the counterparty wants you to stop talking (in a polite way to maintain the relationship) and to wrap up the conversation.
For example, if I tell you to eat healthier food and exercise more, you may say “Yes, of course I will”. But how often do you act on this kind of advice? Not very often is the reality, rendering the ‘yes” meaningless.
Whereas if you hear “that’s right”, this means they subconsciously feel that you have listened to their feelings and desires and believe you understand their perspective. And they believe they have found the solution themselves which means they are much more likely to act on it.
When your counterparty says “that’s right” out loud, it’s a signal that trust and rapport have been built. And from that foundation breakthroughs in even the most difficult negotiations can be made.
How do you get “that’s right”? Start with listening, mirroring, and labelling. Then paraphrase and summarise their worldview to show the other you really understand.
Find True Confidence In Negotiation By Practising Your Skills
The big shift in my self-confidence about negotiation was understanding my negotiation style which was either Analyst, Accommodator or Assertive depending on my mood which was materially affected by my assumptions about the counterparty. Sounds good in that I could use all three but it wasn’t skillfully done and often my assumptions were wrong. I had to learn to master myself first and develop my emotional intelligence. I was then able to adapt my style according to the context.
And combining this with understanding my true interests, curiously finding out the other’s interests, being able to separate the problem from the person, shifting away from an adversarial approach and seeing the counterparty as a co-creator and problem solver I have got more of what I want.
And having a genuine alternative, my BATNA, has really helped but the key for me is really believing you will follow through on it. And hearing my first ‘that’s right’ was very exciting as it resulted in progress from what seemed like an intransient position.
Negotiation is part of everyday life and by embracing the transformative nature of
negotiation you can learn to get more of what you want and build collaboration and