If you watch too many business-based dramas, or television shows about wannabe entrepreneurs, you could be forgiven for believing that negotiation is a means of demonstrating machismo and wringing out an extra few percent from a sale or an investment, just for the sake of the cameras.
Or that it’s an all-night, shirt-sleeved argument to show domestic voters that our government won’t be pushed around by foreign bureaucrats. You might think that persuading a sales assistant to give you the discount on your service contract for a mobile phone that she was probably going to give you anyway is a successful negotiation.
In truth, these are at the very outer edges of what a real, skilful negotiation actually is.
The heart of a good negotiation – and it is just as likely to be about the size of your department’s budget, the amount of time L&D can take to implement a company-wide skills programme, or the level of free consultancy your IT infrastructure provider gives you – involves skills and behaviours that you’ve probably never even thought about.
Whether you’re in the final stages of selling a complex system to a big corporate customer, or arguing amongst colleagues in the senior management team for a strategic redeployment of resources, a successful outcome will ultimately hinge on your ability to execute some very personal skills at a critical moment. If you haven’t established total acceptance of your ideas in principle, and uncontested agreement to every detail of your commercial and legal terms, then you’re going to be negotiating.
So to answer the basic question.. what actually is negotiation?
A negotiation is an open exchange of ideas, informed with as much information as possible about the strategic objectives of each party and the best ways to achieve those to everybody’s optimum satisfaction. It is not a boxing match with each party slugging it out, trading alternate proposal and counterproposal, without pausing to take the other party’s needs and motivations into account.
Research by Huthwaite International proved this a long time ago by highlighting the appropriateness of many different behaviours in this situation. One of the important, and perhaps surprising, findings was that skilled or successful negotiators spent 120% more time than average negotiators do seeking relevant information from the other side; and the good negotiators made fewer than half as many counterproposals than their average comparators.
In other words, the best, most successful negotiators (measured by the long-term enforceability of their agreements and their rating by both sides in the negotiation) tend not to think in terms of fixed positions. They ask more questions; they seek to understand the other side’s strengths and weaknesses, the pressures acting on them, and what a successful outcome would look like for them.
They also look for ways of avoiding concessions, not simply by refusing the other party’s proposal, but by delving into the strategic objectives that lie behind that position, and trying to find other – less costly – ways to meet those same objectives.
We call that a Pull Style of persuasion. It’s a style that can avoid a lot of wasted time otherwise spent in mere haggling, which will neither resolve all of the many issues, nor leave either party really happy about the outcome.
Nothing says, “I’m not listening, I’m just pushing my agenda” like a counterproposal.
A persuasion strategy based on Pull Style gets to the heart of everyone’s problems; whereas one based on pushing proposals and counterproposals can only ever arrive at the lesser of two evils. That, when you stop to think about it, is what haggling is. And when we completed new research in the summer and autumn of 2014, involving 1,300 respondents in 52 countries, it showed that the correlation of these behaviours to success is still as widely evident today as it ever was.
Overall, still not enough people are using this Pull Style, but faced with a choice of behaviours in a suggested commercial scenario, 41% of successful negotiators use the verbal behaviour that we call Seeking Information, whereas only 33% of unsuccessful negotiators do so.
And half of all unsuccessful negotiators surveyed simply demand that the other side present their fully formed proposal.
This important verbal behaviour category is the preserve of the better negotiator, and the majority of people out there – in all roles, in all walks of life – are still getting it badly wrong. It’s a familiar failing, to us at least, that gets in the way of companies winning the best bids, procuring the best deals, or resolving fundamental internal issues. If you don’t think it’s a common failing, listen to yourself the next time you’re in any conversation that we’d call a negotiation. It’s a skill that should be learned, practised and reinforced. If you already get it right every time, I’d be surprised.