Five tips for negotiating

Two people negotiating

The need for negotiation arises usually because of differing viewpoints and values. There is contention in the air; one person wants ‘x’ and the other is insisting on ‘b’. Often there is a third party somewhere in the middle, wringing hands, trying to get combatants to see reason. Legal disciplines such as mediation and arbitration are formal examples of this process.

Stuart Diamond, an American negotiation specialist, believes the more emotive a negotiation is, the more resistant people are to facts and logic. This inevitably leads to confrontation. In online forums, to their surprise, experts are discovering that no amount of evidence-based research is convincing opponents, particularly when the latter feel something to be true.

You only have to read about debates over vaccinations or watch recent Q&A episodes to see ongoing examples of this.

For humanity to move forward, it requires re-learning the art of negotiation, if a worthwhile outcome is sought.

Here are some useful tips for negotiation.

1. Understanding the other person’s needs and motives

A person may express themselves stridently, even grossly. Toughen your ears a little and allow them to speak.

Try not to make blanket assumptions about other parties – first impressions can fool. See what they’re really saying, beneath the bluster or passive aggression.

Try to get a sense of where they’re coming from, and what they may really be requesting. It’s important to grasp the nature of their grievances.

Within reason, a conversation can eventually begin, without either side sacrificing beliefs.

The key is to create a mutually respectful space.

2. Set expectations and boundaries early

At the moment, this is missing in much online discourse – hence the prevalence of trolls and pointless disparaging. Whether you’re dealing with grumpy family members, colleagues, or strangers, be clear about what you expect and what you are willing (or not) to tolerate for the sake of progressing the discussion.

Seek agreement on what the objectives are and broad steps towards achieving them. Are there non-negotiables, for example, KPIs, deliverables and timelines?

Recognise each party will have its own priorities, perspectives and desires. List them all and determine where there are half-way or meeting points toward the objective in question.

3. Look at how you can help

This depends on first seeing where the conversation ‘potholes’ are. You might want something from the other party but their attitude is proving a stumbling block.

‘Give and take’ is intrinsic to negotiation; don’t assume you all have the same objectives, or even when you do, that you’ll agree on the best ways forward.

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, which is about first settlers who failed to grasp the nature of land ownership, demonstrates this.

The protagonist is warned by a character wise in the ways of the country’s indigenous population about the folly of claiming land to be “his”. Blind to the implications, the protagonist proceeds to seize what he believes belongs to him and before long, tragedy results. Similar battles, infused by similar proprietary emotions, have occurred right through the ages, all around the world down to the present day.

Acknowledge that differing viewpoints exist, and before seeking favours, see what you can offer first.

4. Show and visualise how the outcome will work for both parties

This is a demonstration of good faith, requiring all of the above before you can properly advance to this point.

  • What are / might pose obstacles to getting the job done?
  • Communicate your vision.
  • Are there ways to give each party both an incentive and a penalty that will be observed?
  • Where can you or they be flexible (i.e. prepared to give up on lesser priorities in order to achieve something bigger)?
  • Seek agreement on the way forward.
  • Have everyone communicate their vision and look for the points of commonality.

The ‘outcome’ may not be completely as you believe it should be. You may be right. You can also be wrong, for reasons that have yet to materialise.

In negotiation, not everyone puts all their cards on the table. Sabotage sometimes awaits, as does human error or an unforeseen turn of events. This then calls for….

5. Providing a point of reference and review

Very occasionally, this won’t be necessary, because the negotiation in question resolved all the matters at hand.

At other times, however, negotiations will have flaws that demonstrate themselves quickly, or which lie dormant awhile and then take an unpleasant life of their own. Review is then definitely called for.

For Diamond, differences are the source of profitability. It appears that work groups in which people disagree produce three times as many marketable ideas than consensus groups.

Homogeneity, he says, “is less profitable”. This isn’t infallible, because many companies, not to mention individuals, prefer “cultural fit”, as it saves time and energy.

Agree to regularly touch base with the others to ensure things are proceeding smoothly and transparently. If they are not, the conversation – the parley – has the capacity to be fruitfully resumed, using the above tips.

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace. See the rest of Eve’s blogs here.


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5 years ago

Third party negotiation is very common. Actually in my experience in any dispute local or international, third party who actually makes more sense. Makes the negotiation process streamlined.

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