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What does it take to be a good negotiator?

That is really a difficult question. I wouldn’t even know where to start to analyse it. I have certainly read many negotiation books and found myself in various situations arguing (I mean negotiating) with important people on some point on which we have not agreed. I will focus on commercial negotiations related to selling products in this article. Please remember there are many types of negotiations, some very complex, such as separating assets and custody during a divorce, and others as simple as convincing your partner where to go to dinner on your anniversary.

We have negotiated since we can remember. Even if children don’t realize it, they can already obtain what they want just by imitating or copying their parents’ strategies. It is almost a basic need. Some more extroverted children can even use aggressive techniques; over time, they will perfect those techniques, grow up and become great negotiators. Other more introverted children will seek opportunities by analysing their parents’ behavior. Undoubtedly, many of them began to explore their possibilities using their emotions. We can call it “emotional blackmail“. The objective is always the same, to satisfy a desire or to obtain more than what is offered.

In 1981 Roger Fisher and William Ury published their famous “Getting to Yes“, a classic book from the by then still young “Harvard Negotiation Project”. The theories explained there became the pillars of modern negotiations. 

The main ideas were:

  • Separate the person from the problem.
  • Focus on interests and not on positions.
  • Search for a result based on a standard objective.
  • Be clear about your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) and your role based on it.
  • Use questions instead of statements.

Some years later, William Ury would complement what was already stated with his “Getting Past No“, focusing on some more specific strategies. According to him, the steps to follow when negotiating should be:

  • Observe carefully.
  • Understand the interests of the other party.
  • Highlight the argument.
  • Build a golden bridge and educate the other party.

Later, many other authors would take these ideas and give them a personal touch, always adding something to the path already paved by these two men.

As I mentioned, in my career, I have often found myself in front of clients, negotiating prices, conditions, quantities or even claims. I can tell you that I have found myself several times in quite strange situations. For instance, once, I met a client from the Middle East for dinner at his rest house, and we were supposed to discuss the price and conditions for a year contract. In the middle of dinner, even before we started the negotiation, he took out his gun and placed it in the middle of the table, but very casually, as if it were his wallet. Please mind this person is a very respected and honest businessman in the food industry of his country, but due to security reasons, he is allowed to carry a gun. I don’t think the client was aware of the negotiation strategy in which you distress the other party with something that takes them out of their comfort zone, nor do I believe he intended to impress me with it, but be sure it certainly affected me the rest of the evening, which in the end turned out very well for both. 

It would be very arrogant to say that I have used all the strategies I have read. Still, I do dare to say that I have used several, and I have been able to verify their effectiveness. I will mention those that are simpler but always have an impact.

  • Good cop – bad cop. A classic that never fails in sales. It must be remembered that the bad cop is not necessarily a person. It can be a document, condition, date, etc.
  • Expand the pie. Explore benefits obtained with collaboration, something the other party cannot see.
  • Empathy. Listen carefully and let the other party know that you understand (not that you accept) their position. This brings emotions down.
  • Go to the balcony. Straight from Ury’s book, pause and assess whether you want to react to a provocation.
  • Study the other party. Do your pre-work. It would help to discover what is essential to your counterpart; maybe it is not price, but knowledge can give you leverage.
  • Seek to build trust. No matter the result of the negotiation, their opinion of you is the most important thing. If they trust you, people will want to do business with you.
  • Build a golden bridge. As Sun Tzu said in The Art of War, people don’t want to be forced into something. Let them think it was their idea.

Some highly recommended strategies, but for some reason, when using them, I have not been able to obtain interesting results:

  • Start high to close at a midpoint (the famous “anchor”). It is very logical, but in my experience, unless the market is on your side (high demand), emotions hijack the negotiation and force you to take a big step back.
  • Prepare ahead of time. It is always good to be prepared before a negotiation, but, as Mike Tyson said, the moment you receive the first punch in the face, the moment you will throw away your precious strategy. There is no need to over-plan.
  • Framing“. The way you present the proposal can influence the final result. When I used it, I found that the other party was adamant about what they wanted, ignoring my suggestion.
  • Enter the negotiation with a problem-solving mentality. Sometimes the other party does not share your opinion, and the ideas you propose are quickly discarded, which is demotivating.
  • Give concessions on things not worth much in exchange for other things you value more. There are usually no things of lesser value to give up.

As one can realize, many of the mentioned strategies aim to control emotions, ours and the other part’s. For this reason, I decided to divide this article into two parts. In the next one, I will focus on how emotions determine the course and the end of a negotiation.

In response to the initial question, I dare say that negotiation is a developed skill, not a talent you are born with. Of course, it requires time and effort, just as artists can become masters after hours of practice. You must put effort into and believe in your ability to be a good negotiator. And, of course, reading and watching videos of how the experts do it will always help.

Do you feel you are a good negotiator? Have you had any interesting experience to share?

If you need to improve your negotiation skills quickly, please write me a message via the website or schedule a call, and we can have a coaching session regarding this matter.

Alexander Martinez

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