The art of negotiation – a corporate perspective

negotiation, discuss, speech bubbles

Negotiation is a skill – like any other – that can be learned through good models and frequent practise, says David Freedman.

The issue of negotiation has received a lot of media attention of late, in light of a number of high- profile disputes between employers and their staff in both the private and public sectors. 

This looks set to continue, with the latest announcements that unions will ballot members over further strike action this winter regarding the UK government’s public sector pension changes and proposed cuts to health service jobs in Northern Ireland.

In the world of sport too, the threat by top men’s tennis professionals to go on strike if the tennis authorities do not agree to cut back what they claim is an overcrowded tournament schedule has also hit the headlines.

“Average negotiators believe that they have prepared well if they have pulled together lots of data, statistics and real-life success stories to support their case.

Looking more closely at the actions of each side in such negotiations has opened up a wider debate around how to reach a deal which works for both parties.

Few of us would consider ourselves expert negotiators. Yet we spend a surprising amount of time every day engaging in negotiations with those around us. At work, we may be looking to secure extra resources for a crucial project or seeking to change a critical deadline. At home, it could be dealing with the purchase of a new kitchen, or settling on a holiday destination that pleases everyone in the family.

However, irrespective of the situation or what side of the negotiating table we sit, the same rules of engagement apply. So, from the perspective of a commercial negotiation, what lessons can we learn from high-profile industrial disputes or professionally-managed commercial contracting talks?

Here are some issues to consider to make sure you negotiate from the strongest possible position:

1. Preparation and planning are not the same.

In business, no matter how it appears from the outside there is rarely just one point at issue.  Whatever the start point, the vast majority of negotiations will revolve around much more than just financial matters.  The key is to weigh up other factors and their relative importance.  

Doing your homework is crucial to identify and explore the implications in advance. This is a crucial difference between preparation and planning. Average negotiators believe that they have prepared well if they have pulled together lots of data, statistics and real-life success stories to support their case.  Yet this effort will count for little if they then fail to plan how to use this research during the negotiation itself.        

At the preparation stage, excellent negotiators will be creative in identifying all the options available to them – especially those bargaining counters which may cost relatively little but are of greater value to the other side – and know how best to deploy them to achieve the desired result. 

2. Don’t just split the difference.

Negotiation and compromise are not the same thing. It is tempting when the pressure is on just to settle for a deal that works for now, for example by offering additional concessions on other terms and conditions without getting something in return. However, such short-term thinking is likely to prove a poor tactic and the best negotiators take time to consider all the long-term implications of any concession or decision. 

3. Listening is as important as talking.

In making sure that the other person understands our point of view, we typically put the emphasis on talking.  However, skilled negotiators are also good listeners.  They adopt a surprisingly consultative style, asking twice as many questions as the average negotiator to establish the other party’s position. 

This not only helps identify their priorities, it also maintains clarity throughout what can be a complex process involving several people on each side. 

People often think that exceptional negotiators are likely to give no clues about what’s going on in their heads or hearts. However, the reverse is actually true: they express feelings and emotions in order to encourage openness and create a climate of trust with the other party At the same time, a statement of feeling such as, “I’m very disappointed with the offer you have made,” cannot be argued with as it is purely subjective.

4. Supporting arguments: less is more.

Many of us have been brought up to believe, and taught at school, that the more arguments you can use to support your case, the more likely you are to win.  The risk with this approach is that you will eventually use an argument that does not hold water, which the other party will seize on to undermine the credibility of your whole proposition.   

Talented negotiators avoid diluting their case. They use one strong argument and expand it as necessary.  They will only employ a second reason if the first cannot, in the light of new information perhaps, be upheld. They don’t contaminate a strong argument with a weak one.   

5. Avoid “fairness”

One aspect of poor negotiation regularly observed during the current public sector dispute has been the presence of irritators. These are behaviours which praise your  own position or are condescending to the other party and often include such terms as fair, reasonable or generous.

A negotiator informing the other side what is good for them is using irritator behaviour. If a person describes an offer as fair, they are saying that the other side is unfair by not acknowledging and accepting it. If they say that they are being generous, they are telling the other side that they should be grateful for what has been put on the table.

One I particular dislike is “I hear what you say . . .” This reminds me of a famous remark made by the nineteenth century  German statesman, Otto von Bismarck: “When a man says that he approves of something in principle, it means that he hasn’t the slightest intention of putting it into practice.”

Research shows that average negotiators are five times more likely to use irritator behaviour than skilled ones.  These words may seem unimportant at the time but they are never persuasive and, in the context of a heated exchange, can do a lot of damage to the atmosphere of the negotiation.

For most people, there is a lot to learn about becoming a skilled negotiator. Yet it is a skill – like any other – that can be learned through good models and frequent practice. Whether or not your environment is primarily commercial, poor negotiation skills can produce results that suit nobody well and whose ramifications will cause damage long after the parties have picked up their briefcases and gone home.

Get it right however and the ball will firmly be in the other’s court.

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