People are often surprised, and a little intimidated, when they learn that my research expertise is in negotiations. They remark, “but you are so personable … transparent… straightforward.” And I think, “It’s too bad that’s a surprise. . .”
This is probably because most people think of negotiators, and by extension negotiations, as showy and cut-throat, a game where one side wins and the other loses. So it’s not surprising that many people dread having to negotiate, whether for a car, a house, a new job or a business.
But I see negotiation from another lens, as part of every social interaction. We are all different. That’s what makes life wonderful. So, in order to live and work together, we need to learn to resolve our differences in productive, generative ways. That’s what great leaders do.
As a social scientist, I’m fascinated by how people think and act in reaching agreement (or not). Everyday people resolve differences in many ways – both explicitly and implicitly. Whether it is a non-verbal understanding of who will walk through the door first; a breakfast dialogue to decide what a family will eat for dinner; the ebb and flow of a deep problem-solving discussion at work; or who gets credit for ideas and who gets a bigger bonus. The list goes on and on, ranging from mundane to monumental.
From all my years of studying and practicing negotiation, here are my six favorite tips. The first three can equip anyone to be a better negotiator. The second three are for those who want a bit more nuance.
1) Know what you want. There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to negotiate with someone who doesn’t know what they want. They either can’t agree, or they just keep changing their minds. The most successful negotiators start with self-awareness, figuring out what they most want, prioritizing that, and deciding what they can live without. No one gets everything they want in life, but to paraphrase the Rolling Stones: if you try, you can get what you need.
2) Do your homework. If a negotiation really matters to you, you need to know all you can about the other parties involved – their experiences, values, networks. People are flattered when you’ve taken the time to do your research on them, and it saves you from making the wrong assumptions about how they operate. You also need to know what’s possible (and not) from a market perspective. For example, you may think your house is the most beautiful in town or that you deserve to earn $1 million per year, but if the market doesn’t agree, you’re going to waste a lot of time, energy and good will trying to convince the other side. Great negotiators know that 80 percent of their work is done away from the table, researching the other parties and identifying relevant comparables.
3) Listen more than you talk. Contrary to popular myth, once they get to the table, great negotiators focus on listening, not talking. They seek to learn from the other side first. One of the biggest rookie mistakes is to give away ground or reputation by making a wrong opening offer too quickly. The best way to deepen your understanding of the other person and what is possible to achieve with them is to ask questions and listen carefully, with an open mind, to the answers.
And for a deeper cut:
4) Embrace conflict. Unlike in some other cultures, many Americans prefer to avoid conflict. It’s been implicitly understood, in many circles, that conflict should not to be publicly called out or addressed. Those norms may be changing in the current political climate – and to the extent that they do, in respectful ways, that could be good. Research shows time and again that disagreement is the best source of new ideas and new understandings. Only by constructively engaging in conflict do we find the common ground between differing points of view, catalyze new insights, and uncover creative synergies. Getting to a shared vision in any relationship, community or organization requires embracing conflict and thoughtfully resolving it – not shying away from it.
5) Be contentious only in self-defense.Coupled with the point above, be mindful that contentious and disrespectful behaviors create ill will and erode trust. The world hardly needs more of that. Most executives I know start by assuming good intentions and only shift to more guarded or aggressive tactics if there is no alternative. Unfortunately, some people seem to treat every negotiation as a judo match. But that doesn’t make them successful, at least not in the long-run, as most experienced executives, including myself, will simply avoid working with them in future.
6) Don’t cave on price for the sake of a relationship. That’s just naïve and simplistic. Good relationships can’t be bought. They can only be built through shared values and meaningful discussion. If price is an issue, agree to work together to negotiate a shared definition of fairness; to determine what market data or other comparables suggest would be a fair deal for both of you. Fairness, respect and trust are the relational currencies you can and should bank on in every interaction, whenever possible.