Negotiating is a Craft


Negotiating a delicate mix of art and science, style and substance. It prizes intuition, intellect, and good sense as much as hard numbers. It requires emotional detachment and a high aspiration level.  It can be a game of power, real as well as imagined. Some people play the game masterfully, while others only dimly understand it.

Successful and effective negotiators play the win/win game masterfully and have the necessary knowledge, experience and skills to navigate the negotiation process with all of its rules, rituals, strategies and tactics in a way that achieves mutually acceptable results and that’s not all...

Good Negotiators also do it in a manner that enhances the relationship they have with their counterpart.


Strategies and Tactics Aren’t Enough

The Win/Win negotiators have a goal that is 'Results with Relationship' and many have learned it through experience, so you need more than rules and rituals to get the right results. You need important personal characteristics (key attributes and traits) that you either come by naturally or that you learn through the “school of hard knocks”.

Good negotiators know that everything can go wrong, as negotiation is a dynamic process with numerous moving parts, all of which are negotiable. They expect the unexpected and prepare accordingly:

  • Who am I negotiating with?
  • Why are we negotiating?
  • Where is the best place for the negotiation to take place?
  • What is the timeframe for the negotiation?
  • How will I manage the negotiation?
  • What are the key issues and outside influencing factors? Do I understand them?
  • What is my BATNA? My settlement range (MAR and LAR)? Opening offer or counter offer?
  • What are the independent standards (i.e. price comparable, appraisals, surveys or other professional opinions) to support my opening offer or counter offer? Concession strategy?
  • Do I have a prioritised list of potential concessions and trade-offs?
  • How do I make this a win/win negotiation?
  • How do I deal with a win/lose counterpart?
  • How do I break a potential deadlock?

Just as improvisational actors prepare a great deal before they act, the more prepared you are to negotiate, the easier it is to improvise.

Be patient, persistent and creative

Advantage always goes to the patient negotiator who persistently pursues creative win/win solutions. Negotiation is a complex process that takes time. Progress usually comes in small increments. Impatient negotiators who lack persistence often leave potential results on the table and make costly mistakes.

The most successful and effective negotiators are the most creative. Good solutions eventually come to those with the patience to wait for them, the persistence to work for them and the desire to produce innovative win/win results. And don’t forget, some of the more difficult negotiations will likely call for quite a bit of stamina. So be ready!

During a negotiation, patience means not being rushed into a decision because the other party is looking for a resolution.

Listen, listen and then listen some more

The most successful/effective negotiators spend far more time listening and asking questions than they do talking. Gathering information and then thoroughly understanding that information takes precedence over sharing information. Once you fully comprehend your counterpart’s frame of reference, it’s easier to know what to share and how to share it, in order to build trust and move the negotiation forward. Win/Win negotiators use:

  • Active listening techniques (they suspend judgment and focus on understanding what is said by their counterpart).
  • Reflective listening techniques (they repeat, summarise or reflect to their counterpart what they just heard in question format).

These techniques are used to gain valuable information about their counterpart’s position and rationale. Successful/effective negotiators realise that it is next to impossible to persuade their counterpart to adjust their point of view, if they themselves do not understand it.

Standard techniques of good listening are: -

  • to pay close attention to what is said
  • to ask the other party to spell out carefully and clearly exactly what they mean; and
  • to request that ideas be repeated, if there is any ambiguity or uncertainty.

Show empathy

What is empathy? It’s an attempt to understand, be aware of and sensitive to the feelings, thoughts, experiences, frames of reference, interests (needs/priorities) and positions of your counterpart. Successful/effective negotiators understand that to manage conflicting points of view and achieve a win/win result, you must provide your counterpart with convincing reasons to exchange their ideas for the ones you suggest.

Your counterpart will be much more receptive and your rationale much more convincing if he/she is confident that you understand and that you are sensitive to his/her point of view, interests (needs/priorities) and position. Empathy builds rapport, encourages information sharing, establishes mutual respect and moves the negotiation forward in a positive direction.

The most important tool, the number one quality of a great negotiator is empathy. Whether you’re negotiating a financial transaction, whether you’re negotiating conflict, whether you’re negotiating something horrendous or something benign, it all boils down to how well you can see the world the way they’re seeing it.

Be sensitive to non-verbal cues

Not only are successful/effective negotiators sensitive to non-verbal cues, they can also read the ones that actually matter. Experienced negotiators are really good at sending non-verbal cues meant to disguise information, and in some cases, outright deceive their counterparts.

Win/Win negotiators focus on two non-verbal sources that are difficult (not impossible) for inexperienced negotiators to control: the eyes and the voice. Believe it or not, people’s eyes and voice can provide valuable non-verbal information about both the relationship and the emotional state of the parties in a negotiation. When messages delivered verbally conflict with messages delivered non-verbally from the eyes and voice, experienced negotiators tend to attribute more credibility to the non-verbal messages. 

Don’t take things personally

When you feel angry, frustrated, embarrassed, defensive or just plain upset because your counterpart’s beliefs, attitudes or behaviours are having effects on you in a negotiation, it’s extremely difficult to respond intelligently and calmly. If you react emotionally, the consequences tend not to be in your best interests and usually make a bad situation worse – not better.

Through mental sublimation, successful/effective negotiators have learned to detach themselves emotionally by accepting the fact that the beliefs, attitudes and behaviours of their counterparts do not belong to them. As a result, they don’t take responsibility for them either. This is one of life’s most important skills - how to “not take things personally”. Half our mistakes in life arise from feeling, when we ought to think - and thinking when we ought to feel.

Be an innovative and creative problem-solver

Negotiations are competitive and so they should be. If a win/win solution is to be found, this spirited rivalry calls for a cooperative attitude capable of joint problem solving and compromise. When successful/effective negotiators find themselves faced head-on with problematic issues that impede the movement towards a mutually acceptable conclusion, they suggest the following joint problem-solving approach. This requires both negotiators to view problem issues as opportunities rather than impossible barriers:

  • Clearly identify problem issues, their causes, effects and impact on the negotiation.
  • Prompt each side to explain their interests (needs/priorities) in relation to the problem issues and why they are important.
  • Clarify similarities and differences between the parties’ interests (needs/priorities) and how they impact the development of a win/win solution.
  • Propose trade-offs (what ifs): “What if we lower the price to a more acceptable level for you, if you extend the proposed contract to a more acceptable duration for us?” Perform a reality test for each proposal.
  • Agree on a creative win/win package. Remember, the most successful and effective negotiators are the most innovative and creative

Stay flexible

What makes many negotiations seemingly impossible to resolve? It’s often a fear of scarcity, and the idea that there must be a winner and a loser. The alternative: find a way to expand the pie, so that there’s more for everyone. Negotiation is movement. It is an exercise in flexibility.

The opening offer or counter offer is never the final mutually acceptable solution. Yes, all generalisations are false (including this one)! Experienced negotiators go through the habitual ritual of developing:

  • a realistic and justifiable settlement range (MAR/LAR)
  • a range of solutions from “most acceptable” to “least acceptable”. Here, it’s important to note that every solution within the range is acceptable (some more than others) and not one of them compromises the negotiator’s interests (needs/priorities).

Successful/effective negotiators show their flexibility by proposing creative ways to satisfy the interests of both sides at the lowest cost to one another. A win/win solution within the respective settlement range is the focus. As the negotiation unfolds, you must be both flexible and adaptable in order to effectively tolerate conflict and stress. Flexibility is an important trait in negotiations; it’s the key to compromise, which in turn is key in reaching concessions and conclusions.

Learn from your mistakes

As you strive to be a successful/effective negotiator, no matter what stage of development you are in currently – newbie, absolute pro, or somewhere in the middle – there will be times when your intuition, intellect, self-control or self-discipline fails you. When that happens, you make mistakes that can find you doing or saying things that are not in your best interest.

  • When you fail to plan adequately and find yourself failing in the negotiation.
  • When you focus on positions instead of interests.
  • When you assume everything is negotiable and it isn’t – or vice versa.
  • When you make an important decision under time pressure with harmful consequences.
  • When you react negatively to your counterpart’s behaviour instead of responding positively to the issue at hand.

It happens to all of us. Those who learn the error of their ways quickly and move on become successful/effective negotiators. Those who don’t, make the biggest mistake of all. "My mistakes, I find, are my best teachers. A negotiator needs to learn. A mistake is only temporary; the failure to learn is permanent". William Ury

Adopt a 'results with relationship' approach

From the get-go, a successful/effective negotiator’s approach is to achieve win/win results – a mutually acceptable solution that satisfies the interests (needs/priorities) of both parties with, not at the expense of, the relationship. They avoid confrontation, intimidation, blaming, constantly interrupting, talking over top of the other, putting others on the defensive or threatening their self-esteem.

They focus on clarifying and satisfying another’s interests (needs/priorities) rather than debating each other’s positions. They remain calm, cool and collected throughout. Their continuing movement is towards a fair and mutually acceptable solution.

What it all boils down to

To be a successful/effective (win/win) negotiator, you have to play the game and play it very well. You must have considerable knowledge about the negotiation process and that includes its rules, rituals, strategies and tactics. But these alone won’t enable you to play the game “masterfully”. In win/win negotiations, if you want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem, you must exercise those characteristics that come to you naturally, but also adopt and add other key characteristics either through experience or skill development.