Negotiate like a pro

Would it surprise you to learn that only 10% of professional negotiators are actually good at negotiating and getting the deals they set out to get? The data shows that we are rushing the process of building common ground, trust and understanding about what our counterpart really needs.

The lack of preparation means we are at risk of not making the full ask, not using the language or terminology that is familiar to our counterpart (so our ideas are not landing strong), and not seeing the opportunities for where our counterpart could actually be our biggest advocate.

Extensive preparation is just the beginning

The 3 sources on negotiation success that I’m quoting all counsel extensive preparation for every high stakes negotiation — whether it’s to agree a deal, a partnership, resolve a conflict or bring about strategic change. That preparation investment is alive and at play during the negotiation event itself. Preparation includes socialising our ideas and working through a process of creative alignment.

Bacharach says 80% of negotiating is all about preparation

Author, leadership development practitioner and Cornell University professor, Sam Bacharach is emphatic when he tells us that 80% of “negotiating effectively as a leader is all about preparation”.

Jensen & Unt say negotiation methods, not time, cause failure

In their book, Negotiating Partnerships: Increase Profits & Reduce Risk (2002), Keld Jensen and Iwar Unt call out some fundamental mistakes that are clear indicators of lack of preparation. Seeing only half the negotiation opportunity, aiming too low and not actively searching for the added value are just some at the top of their long list.

“It is not lack of time which makes negotiation fail. What causes the failure is the negotiation methods – a fact which many have difficulty accepting.”
— Jensen & Unt

The top 7 behaviours of negotiation pros

There are known key behaviours that distinguish professional negotiators from everyone else. As part of their research, Jensen and Unt met with over 22,000 negotiators and studied over 1,000 negotiators on simulation negotiations of varying difficulties and over a range of partnerships. Partnership scenarios included development projects, agency agreements, consortiums, annual agreements, joint ventures and co-operation across national borders.

They concluded that only 10% are skilled negotiators.

So, what behaviours and methodologies lead to successful negotiations?

While it’s good to know what behaviours fail, it’s even more critical and relevant to understand what behaviours lead to success in negotiations. Jensen and Unt provide a long list of factors (or elements of methodologies) displayed by the 10% negotiation pros. Here are my top picks:

  1. They have analysed the negotiation and the negotiation variables. They have prioritised important variables and less important variables.
  2. They often outline the negotiation on a board to get an overview.
  3. They clearly define the roles each person will play, and they rehearse.
  4. They actively present offers and counteroffers.
  5. They have a strategy which includes a defined negotiation range (and possible outcomes).
  6. They do not dig foxholes and fight about details.
  7. They take one last break before entering into an agreement.

All these behaviours are indicative of extensive preparation — including formulating and defining clear, measurable strategic outcomes — in advance of the negotiation event.

Your counterpart may be your advocate

A final concept to consider in all of this is how we view our negotiating counterpart. As well as preparation, Bacharach emphasizes empathy as a critical attitude to bring to the table.

In fact, those who come to negotiations with empathy are less likely to dig foxholes and fight about the details, and are more likely to be actively considering where the added value could be within their defined negotiation range.

In the US National Defense University’s publication Strategic Negotiations, Tom Colosi positions negotiation as an exercise in partnership-building:

“The greatest misunderstanding about the negotiation process is that it is adversarial in nature. In actuality, it is not designed for those with a trial and debate mentality. It is a problem solving process in which each party may look across the table and regard its counterparts as [potential] advocates.”
– Colosi

Demonstrate knowledge to build trust (and no surprises)

The distinction the NDU make is between principled (win-win) and positional (adversarial) negotiation. The former depends on mutual trust and the parties remaining rational and objective throughout the process.

Trust comes from demonstrating that you understand your counterpart’s situation. This can only happen if you have considered their position with some hard facts and therefore can determine their possible strategies such that “you aren’t hearing it in negotiations for the first time.”

As a negotiator or the person leading a negotiation, your role is to find the common ground for building a proposition and then securing agreement of terms.

You uncover the common ground by learning as much as you can about your counterpart’s position. Your success then depends heavily on your ability to consistently demonstrate some critical negotiating behaviours to earn trust, respect and the right to be at the table in the first place.

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