You are a negotiator.
You may find this statement hard to believe because you aren’t routinely sitting in a corporate boardroom or buying and selling used cars.
But the fact is, you are negotiating all day long. From a discussion with your spouse about who will pick up the kids to an exchange with colleagues about who will formally present the committee’s findings, negotiation is commonly practiced throughout your day.
In its most basic form, negotiations begin when we make an effort to promote our position or preferences over those of others. We want our choice to be the one accepted by all. As we make countless decisions throughout the day, opportunities to negotiate, therefore, are almost limitless.
For many, negotiating is an intimidating subject. It’s seen as an activity in which there is a gross imbalance of power between parties, where one party strong-arms the other through clever techniques, leaving the other feeling outmatched and manipulated.
This universal aversion to negotiation is one reason years ago auto dealers began offering no-haggle pricing. Car dealers figured they could elevate their reputation and make the car buying experience a little less torturous if they eliminated the highly detested practice of aggressive negotiation.
Unfortunately, experiences such as car dealing have warped our perspective of what negotiation is all about. Contrary to some popular discourse, it is not a zero-sum game with winners and losers. Instead, it’s about having all parties arrive at an agreement where all feel they got close enough to what they wanted. It should be an outcome of mutual satisfaction with no lingering feelings of doubt or regret.
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Negotiating in Everyday Experiences
We may reason that it’s not so important to have proficiency in negotiating until it’s time for a house purchase or job offer. But negotiating is a valuable life skill, useful in everyday life whenever we have an interest in promoting and obtaining our preferences.
This includes myriad examples in our personal life such as agreements with spouses/partners, kids, siblings, parents, in-laws but also with neighbors, friends, and acquaintances. Negotiation can be especially important when we’re managing scarce resources like time and money.
I’ll volunteer for this event as long as it’s the only one I’m assigned to this year.
I would love to meet up for a chat. Instead of having lunch together, let’s go for a walk instead.
In order for me to watch the kids this weekend, I will need to have a girls’ night out this week.
Negotiating in Our Professional Lives
In our professional lives, by contrast, the art of negotiation may be used more regularly, especially when interacting with clients or managers. In the professional context, negotiation may seem more black-and-white, with the traditional paradigm of “my side versus theirs.”
This feeling of “sides” is most pronounced when having to deal with management to promote our interests as employees. Like when we wish to pitch for a raise, a change in job responsibilities, or a modified work schedule. Keep in mind that while it may feel like the cards are stacked in the employer’s favor, a star employee also has leverage.
With an employee who brings value to the broader organization, the employer has an incentive to keep her around and happy. While anyone is ultimately disposable in their jobs, a sudden departure of a dependable, productive employee does inflict some pain. It’s important to recognize this. A valuable employee ought to know his worth and press for what he most needs and wants.
The Benefits of Being a Good Negotiator
Aside from the feeling of satisfaction in getting your way, other benefits of being proficient at negotiating include self-confidence and assuredness. As a successful negotiator, you signal both to yourself and to others that you know your position and you’re confident in making an articulate claim for it. Your colleagues, friends, and family can count on you to be decisive. They will clearly know where your boundaries lie based on consistent patterns of behavior.
Getting comfortable with negotiating also makes you a more confident communicator. When you give forethought to your position and the desired outcome for you and others, you can then communicate more efficiently and effectively. You quickly get to the heart of the matter that everyone is aiming for. By offering up proposals that are most desirable for everyone, consensus and agreement can more easily be reached.
Steps to Successful Negotiation
Any negotiation, whether big or small, will have the best chance of success if it follows some order and process. This gives the discussion structure and predictability. And it gives you, as the negotiator, a degree of power. By consistently adhering to certain steps of negotiation, you will achieve more desirable outcomes while projecting an air of being in control.
The following are 6 overarching pillars of sound negotiation:
1 - Preparation
Before you begin any discussion, it’s important to figure out what you want. What is your ideal outcome? Paint for yourself the best-case scenario. At the same time determine what you are not willing to accept; this is the point at which you will walk away from the negotiation. The space in between these two points is your negotiating room.
For the sake of illustration, let’s use a simplified example: You wish to go out to lunch with your colleagues Jeff and Patty. You want to go to the new bar and grill that just opened down the street. (That’s your best-case scenario.) But you have some finicky eaters among you, so you may get countered with other suggestions, which you would be open to. But if they insist on getting Greek food, which you hate, you will decline and eat lunch alone. (These are the parameters of you negotiating room.)
2 - Identify Interests
Now that you know your spectrum for negotiation, think about the interests and needs of the other parties. Analyze what you already know about them. Identify their likely preferences and nonnegotiables. To confirm your assumptions, ask open-ended and probing questions. The more they talk, the more information you have. This puts you in a better position to present an attractive proposal. Also, keenly observe their body language. It will tell you things they’re not verbalizing.
Returning to our example, imagine the likely point of view of your colleagues. Jeff is very particular about service but loves a bar atmosphere. Patty is a vegetarian but is always excited to try out new places. Because the restaurant is new, service may be a wild card, but it does have a good pub vibe. You’ve checked out the menu, and there are plenty of options for Patty.
3 - Present an Opening Proposal
Now that you’re armed with information, it’s time to make a proposal that adheres to your own best-case scenario but will be seriously considered by the other parties. To make it most attractive, frame it primarily in their best interests.
Immediately upon presenting your proposal, give it time to sink in. Sometimes people need time to process the information. It’s helpful to observe their body language for clues. It’s not uncommon for people to default to defense mode when it comes to considering an opening proposal. Their first reaction may be to try to figure out how the offer is to their disadvantage.
Conversely, if you are on the receiving end of an opening proposal, try to keep a poker face. Don’t let your body language reveal a reaction. Instead, if you can bear it, remain silent. For many, this is unnerving and can be interpreted as displeasure with the offer. Often, to fill the silence, the one making the initial proposal will start sweetening the deal before you’ve even said a word!
Again let’s consider our example: When you make your proposal to Jeff and Patty, Jeff takes a minute to think about it and Patty crinkles her nose. You give them the time to imagine the restaurant and consider if that option would work for them.
4 - Consider Creative Alternatives
Because an initial offer is rarely accepted as is, it’s important to be open to alternatives as a means to arrive at a mutual desired solution. To keep the discussion moving, be creative and present credible alternatives that are win-win. Look at it from different angles to see what resonates with the others. Ask questions such as If I do this, could you do that? or How about we first agree on this, and then we can split the difference on that?
Each party should be open to creativity but also adhere as closely as possible to their best-case scenario. For it to be a successful negotiation, the agreed outcomes must be within each party’s respective predetermined room for negotiation.
5 - Give and Get Concessions
In the midst of the discussion, listen carefully for what would be attractive to the other party and what things you could easily give up. Likewise, consider what you’d like to ask for. These small offerings of give and take are called concessions. They give everyone the feeling that each party received something unilaterally.
For example, you point out to Patty that the place has plenty of vegetarian options. And you tell Jeff that if he doesn’t like it, you’ll treat him for happy hour at his favorite bar.
Keep in mind that these concessions can take any form of currency. Meaning, aside from money, they could be time, conditions, or even other tangible items. What’s most important is that they are of value to the receiving party with no real burden to the offering party.
Here’s another example. Sometimes in civil litigation, the guilty party is forced to pay hefty financial damages. But often through negotiation, the defendant will demand that the record states there is no admission of guilt. This sounds contradictory, but for the defendant preserving their reputation and brand equity outweigh the monetary penalty, so it is a favorable concession.
Let’s finish our original example. After further consideration, Jeff and Patty are up for checking out the new restaurant, but they have some asks. Jeff would like to leave a little earlier so he can get back for his one o’clock conference call. And Patty would like someone else to drive because it’s raining. These are easy concessions and leave everyone getting what they want.
6 - Final Agreement
At the end of the discussion, it’s prudent to ensure everyone is on the same page in what was agreed upon. This is the time to clarify conditions or concessions, timelines, or any other deliverables. In more formal negotiations, it would be customary to have the agreement prepared in writing.
Negotiation is a process of allowing people to use creativity to arrive at conditions of mutual interest and satisfaction. At the end of a successful negotiation, whether formal or informal, everyone should get what they want in some form or fashion. One person’s wins will look different from the others, but they hold the same kind of value.
Use small inconsequential negotiations in everyday life as practice for bigger, more formal negotiations. In time you will gain more confidence in articulating what you want, presenting attractive proposals, and arriving at mutual agreements. You’ll get what you want without others having to pay the price of angst or regret.
Success in negotiation happens when there are only winners.
Use these 5 pillars of negotiation the next time you need to come to an agreement with another party. Practice it in a low-stakes situation like the one illustrated in the article above. Afterward, consider what you did well and not so well. Continue to practice so it becomes more natural and you feel more confident in more formal negotiations.
In what area of your life would you like to be a stronger negotiator, and why?
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