Anyone who has had the misfortune to sit through what are often – inaccurately – described as “negotiations” on The Dragons’ Den or The Apprentice might easily come away with the idea that the successful negotiator the one who is the last to blink when haggling about price. Intuitively that’s nonsense, and – what’s more – research* proves that it’s nonsense.Success requires a much broader set of skills. Yes, bargaining is one part of negotiation, but price is only one part of bargaining – and if it’s the only one that either side has in its locker, then neither party is likely to be happy with the outcome.
The research shows that negotiation turns out best (for all concerned) when the parties come to the table with a well-thought through, internally-tested and varied range of options. They need to know which issues (price, volume, payment terms, IP ownership, contract length, exclusivity, among dozens of others) are tradable against which, and what each might be worth.
And then they need to plan exactly how they are going to use all that preparation when they actually get across the table from each other.
There’s a great deal to learn about good negotiation skills, with lots of research-based, myth-busting nuggets to consider. To pick just three of these top tips, the first principle is (just as in selling) to ask incisive questions and listen carefully to the answers. It’s only by probing and asking lots of good questions that you will really understand why the other party has taken the position they have. This will also help you to either undermine their case, or, better still, find common ground. Skilled negotiators ask twice as many questions than unskilled.
Secondly, the best negotiators are not stony-faced poker players who are impossible to read. In fact, the reverse is true: expressing feelings is an effective means not only of establishing an atmosphere of trust and openness, but also of setting a context for your position that the other party cannot contradict. If you say you are disappointed with the other side’s opening offer, they can’t tell you you’re happy with it. Successful negotiators share feelings far more frequently than the average.
And thirdly, from an early age at school, we have been taught to put forward as many arguments as possible to support our case. So this is naturally what we do when we negotiate in business. The problem is, this approach is badly flawed. Successful negotiators don’t dilute their strongest arguments with weaker ones. The reason is simple: it will be much easier for the person on the other side of the negotiating table to pick a hole in your weakest proposition, with the risk that the rest of your case will then be fatally undermined.
Above all, it is important to recognise that these traps apply equally whether you are the buyer or the seller. Fall into any one, and you run the risk of blowing the chances of a good deal – for both parties.