Negotiation happens all the time, and often we are not even aware of it. Sometimes, particularly when something is important to you, negotiation or even expressing your position can be a monstrously stressful task. Whether at work or in your personal life, it can feel daunting or intimidating to have to approach the “other side”, whatever that may be. Alternately, negotiation may not phase you in the least, though you may still wish to improve your efficiency in reaching an agreement. Remember that many conflicts involve two or more viewpoints that could at least potentially reach an agreement. It tends to be in both disputants' best long-term interests to settle before litigation, just as much as it is in the interests of co-contractors to effectively understand and agree with each others’ position before signing the deal. I offer the following general suggestions to consider whenever you enter into a negotiation.
Negotiation: First Things First
It is a good idea to reflect on and internalize any elements of the outcome that you absolutely must achieve. By this I mean the be-all-and-end-all, an absolutely essential component that must be part of any end agreement. Examples might be a hard budget, a deadline, or the involvement or actions of a specific person. Especially in cases where you represent more than one person’s interests in negotiations, it is best to get a firm grasp of what absolutely must be present to reach an agreement. Be careful not to underestimate the amount of time or critical reflection it may take to pinpoint these so-called “first things”. It is possible that your particular negotiation does not truthfully have any imperatives! If that is the case, be prepared to recognize that, and be thankful that you will have even more leeway to reach a mutually beneficial arrangement.
I find that crucially important issues are best dealt with up front. Time, energy, and frustrating can be saved by fully disclosing your requirements to the other parties. This will affect how others can respond to you, and prevents unexpected surprise. Rare is the case where obscuring a crucial issue for disclosure at a later period works out favorably, and that type of strategy can easily lead to accusations of deception.
Do not be afraid to clearly articulate what the “needs” of your position are. Introduce them early, and reiterate as necessary. Not forcefully, but tactfully and with the expectation that if one side cannot have its elementary needs met, there cannot be a mutually acceptable outcome.
2. Negotiation: Know Your Goals and Your Limits
The next and possibly most important skill is recognizing the hazier area between the "absolute-must-haves" and the "desirable but not indispensable". For this skill, I invite you to think about what you (or your client) would ideally like to achieve through the negotiation process. These are elements of any agreement or settlement that you could probably do without, or else they would be addressed in the "First Things First" category above. In most situations, there is a range of acceptable outcomes on a spectrum between your most desired outcome, and your least desired (but still tolerable) outcome. Giving yourself this spectrum to play with, and thinking about it in advance, will give you more peace of mind and a greater sense of where things stand when you converse with the other parties.
There is obviously a close relationship between the ideal goals and the "imperatives" we talked about in step one. The time to hash out which elements apply where, in your particular case, is before you start making offers or stating your position. Canvassing the possible outcomes of each element in dispute, as well as how desirable they are, is important when negotiating for yourself but even more important when acting on behalf of others. Negotiating for someone else carries even more responsibility, so it is best to be as prepared as possible.
Be aware that we often have knee-jerk reactions when we set limits or goals. Sometimes a few days of reflection, or even a few minutes, can cause us to realize that what we once thought was an absolute is actually subject to possible changes. Being able to keep these instinctive reactions in check is a good skill for any negotiator.
An excellent tool to practice this step is something at which most of us are already adept: "What-if?", and other hypothetical questions, like "What could..." or "What would...".
Here are a few examples:
- What if they refuse to pay the target price?
- What if he can't meet until next week?
- What would I ask for in return if they need more from me?
- What if they spring something on me?
- What if they will not budge on issue X or Y?
3. Negotiation: Know Your Audience
This is also a crucial step, and some preparatory work in this regard will often be useful when you enter into discussions. There are two pieces of this skill. The first is to try to understand the other parties' background. Chances are, you know some general information about who they are, and perhaps about the types of restraints they may have. Try to consider, in advance, what the other parties' answers to steps 1 and 2 above would be! It is rare that you will have access to all of the information or perspective that belongs to the other side, but thinking this way may help approximate it.
The second piece is to consider how others might react to your position. Again, this is informed by steps 1 and 2. Think about what it would mean for the other person if you got exactly what you are asking for - both in terms of your essential needs and your ideal goals. Really think about this, as it can help you narrow down the range of acceptable outcomes you have settled on in step 2.
In both of these parts, take caution not to draw too many assumptions. Avoid straw-manning the others' positions, and try to uncover which issues you think will be "non-negotiable", that is, the other side's First Things.
4. Attune to the Negotiation Environment
No two negotiations are the same, and how you phrase your discussions may depend on variable factors. Remember that you may be negotiating whether face-to-face, in a mediation or settlement conference, or even writing an email. There is no catch-all way to present yourself that will work in every scenario. However, if you have gone through the above steps, it will be easier to gauge the appropriate tone or techniques.
If negotiating with sophisticated parties, you may feel as though you are at a relative disadvantage. In such cases, be sure to vocalize your needs so that you are understood. Your potential landlord may have a standard way things are done, but if it will not work for you there is little point pretending it will. It is possible that you or your client may feel pressured, sometimes exceedingly so. In many scenarios, including face-to-face negotiations, it is perfectly acceptable to make your feelings known. Saying "I'm feeling a lot of pressure right now and I think I will need [a few minutes or days, to speak with my partner] before we continue" can be helpful. No, perhaps not in time-sensitive situations - but recognize that many deadlines we set for ourselves are themselves negotiable. If delaying the closing date by a few days is necessary to make sure both sides feel satisfied with the arrangement, where is the issue? Likewise, pausing an ongoing mediation for a month does not mean the sessions have failed.
On the other hand, if it feels like you are more in control of things, remember that the other parties may be the ones feeling pressured or confused. It is good practice in these situations to remain calm and candid. Make the extra effort to try to understand the others' needs and desires so that any arrangement reached is well-understood and clear. Aside from helping to make the whole process more amicable, this strategy can help preserve an ongoing relationship with the other party, and may help guard against any future claims that the discussions were unfair.
Dan Lawlor is a Mediate2go Blogger focused on estates and commercial dispute resolution. Dan is a graduate of McGill University's Faculty of Law with
interests in conflict resolution, business law and writing. He played an
important role as a director with Mediation at McGill, building connections
with the community to improve outreach. Currently he is a student-at-law with Campbell Mihailovich
Uggenti LLP in Hamilton, Ontario. Dan loves team sports, reading, and
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