As a kid growing up in the Midwest, there wasn’t much to do with our spare time other than fish. For many years, we would wander down to the river, tie a wire leader to our line, bait our hook with a minnow, and wait. We had moderate success with that system and saw no reason to change, until some of us heard that fish didn’t like wire leaders, and we would probably do better without them. That tip turned out to be very useful, but some traditionalists did not change. After all, they reasoned, wire leaders have worked well for years. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Later, some of us discovered that nightcrawlers were more effective than minnows. Again, the traditionalists saw no reason to try anything new. And on and on it went with each new discovery. Fishing ahead of a cold front was more effective than after. The traditionalists didn’t care. Fishing near underwater structures worked better than open water. The traditionalists stayed in the deeper open waters. Those of us who stacked and adopted these fishing tips were likely better fishermen than we would have been otherwise. The traditionalists never knew the difference, since they never tried anything new.
A lot of professional negotiators are like those old fishermen. They have found a system that seems to work and, with nothing to compare it to, they stick with that system. It also doesn’t help that conventional wisdom teaches that we should play to our strengths instead of working on our weaknesses. For example, company CEOs who are strong on leadership but not so much on operations will surround themselves with good operational people rather than put a lot of effort into developing that skill themselves. In the world of those of us who negotiate for a living, this “Strengthfinder” concept creates a self-perpetuating limitation, as negotiators who are naturals at one aspect of persuasion don’t bother with other methods or techniques. For example, the lawyer that has always been able to get results mostly by being good at establishing rapport may be a little light on strategic thinking. Similarly, the brilliant strategist may not be able to communicate as effectively as he should. For these people, adding a few techniques to what-has-always-worked will often have exponential results. Here are a few tools that negotiators can combine to become more effective.
Everyone knows the importance of establishing rapport. Rapport implies trust, cooperation and a desire to reach a resolution. People are more likely to concede points to people that they like and trust. They are more likely to offer up compromises and solutions. Some people are naturals at it; the rest of us will have to learn it, and those who understand rapport will find that better results are easier to come by.
Although there are “naturals” in the field, rapport is a skill that can be learned. The field of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), for example, has developed sophisticated tools and techniques to maintain rapport in a wide variety of settings. Some techniques include leading, pacing, tonality, mirroring, echoing, suggestion and others that every negotiator should be familiar with. Some negotiators, however, are so good at establishing rapport that they rely on being likeable a bit too much. That one quality may get them to a resolution, but it may not be the optimal resolution. Because we who negotiate are all human (at least at the time of this writing), rapport may be the most important aspect of some types of negotiations (anything that requires a face to face meeting) but it is rarely sufficient all by itself. Another element of a negotiation is strategy.
It is somewhat surprising how often parties walk into a meeting with very little forethought as to what they expect to happen. To give the process some structure, every plan should start with three questions: who am I dealing with, what do I want, and how will I get it?
“Who am I dealing with?” The “who am I dealing with” question may be the most overlooked part of the strategic process. It is often said that a person cannot NOT communicate, and one of the most telling communications is the identity of the person your counter party assigned to your negotiation. If (as has happened to me many times) the opposing party is a very high ranking executive or highly credentialed attorney, I know that we have something very valuable. You can’t Not communicate.
“What do I Want?” Modern psychology teaches us that the mind doesn’t do very well with ambiguous goals. Going into a negotiation with the goal of getting “as much as I can” is almost always bound to render a dissatisfactory result. Setting a range of acceptable outcomes in advance is a far better idea. More importantly, those goals should be targeted to each interaction. What do I want from this call?, for example. It may be nothing more than some information. Every interaction should have a goal.
“How do I get it?” There are strategies, macro strategies and micro strategies. A complex matter is likely to have numerous small goals to achieve along the way as opposed to one “big bang” resolution. Attorneys are often inclined to get what they want with a hammer of litigation. That is a card which may have to be played, but should be done at the right point in the negotiation. Litigation is almost never an opening gambit, and even the threat of litigation too early can damage the process.
In the information age, no one need ever go into a negotiation without knowing quite a lot about the opposing party. Public companies must publicly disclose to the SEC how past deals have been structured, how litigious they are and how active they are in a space. Get to know your “opposing party” before meeting them. In the information age, a quick Google search can result in documents, SEC filings, financials, litigation history, news items and biographical information from which you can anticipate the opposing party’s hot buttons, priorities, personality, reputation and objectives. If knowledge is power, anyone with an internet connection can be powerful.
Preparation goes beyond research, however. Top athletes regularly engage in visualization techniques and top negotiators should too. Even if you think you are good on your feet, preparation is key.
Psychologists have devised numerous personality tests that are useful in negotiation, including the Myers Briggs Indicator, Jungian analysis, and the Enneagram. The most useful of these may be the DISC method, which places people into four categories. If we know which category a person is in, theoretically, we can then predict how they will respond to different approaches. The “D” for example (dominant) will demand concessions (rather than explaining the rationale for them). My experience is that most attorneys are type D type negotiators. An “I” (Influencer), however, will take a more cooperative (but active) approach, looking for win-win solutions (if there is such a thing).
The S (Steady) and C (Compliant) categories refer to more passive participants, who will either be overly accommodating in trying to reach agreement or stubbornly refuse to move from a position. S’s and C’s should probably not be at the negotiating table in the first place. If you are negotiating with an S or a C, be prepared to adopt your style. If you are an S or a C, get over it.
Sometimes a D will respect nothing but a D approach and they often require a bit more finesse than the other types. When dealing with an I, you might present arguments for why a solution is optimal; conversely, you will more often have to establish “hard no’s” with a D. Alternatively, you may choose hard facts and solid reasoning to support your positions when you push back or make your own demands.
While DISC negotiating makes for an elegant theory, in practice, top professionals will “shape shift” among the different styles and use what is most effective. That is why you need to be flexible.
Skilled negotiators know that they have to try things, and will draw out the style of an opposing party by mixing up their approach until something works. For example, they may start out being aggressive and borderline obnoxious. If that doesn’t work, they may switch to a more cooperative style of interaction. If that doesn’t work, they may drill down into facts and supporting data (the baffle them with BS approach). Everyone should be prepared to try different approaches and if you should find yourself feeling like you are dealing with a Sybil set of personalities across the table, watch out – you are being tested.
The movie “Little Big Man” depicts a suspicious Custer questioning a scout played by Dustin Hoffman (who he suspects of being an Indian spy) as to whether he should lead his troops into the Little Big Horn. The scout tells Custer that thousands of Indian warriors await just over the hill, and if he does enter the valley below, he will be flanked and massacred. Custer then says: “You want me to think that you don’t want me to go down there but the subtle truth is you really don’t want me to go down there.” We all know what happened next.
Custer’s last stand, nuclear deterrence, battlefield strategies and the prisoner’s dilemma are examples that negotiators should be familiar with. A negotiation often requires the parties to engage in a tedious game of “what if” that may arrive at results that are not immediately obvious. Fortunately, there are tools and models that place enough structure around game theory that anyone can pick it up and apply it in practice.
Some models assume that the players act perfectly rationally and with a known (if not identical) amount of knowledge. The Nash equilibrium, for example, assumes that each party will choose the best response to the other strategies. The various outcomes can be charted and a lowest cost or highest value outcome determined. One problem with these models, however, is that rarely does anyone act with similar knowledge and even more rarely do they act perfectly rationally, especially when the outcomes are weighted solely by monetary values. Game theory is, nevertheless, an important arrow for the strategist’s quiver.
It is often said that the sign of a successful negotiation is that everyone goes away dissatisfied (the point being that everyone has compromised). That is the mantra of an unskilled persuader, who will rarely get what they want. A good persuader, however, will get what they want, but a highly skilled persuader will get what they want and make everyone feel good about it. One of the easiest ways to do this is to make sure that the opposing party has a part (or believes they have a part) in any proposal. In other words, make them think it was their idea. It is difficult for the human mind to reject an idea that it thinks it came up with; and even more difficult to accept an idea that someone else is trying to impose on it.
There is no one single set of skills that can define a negotiator. Instead, there are numerous aspects to a negotiation. Because of our natural tendency to stick with what we know best, many negotiators will rely (successfully) on only one or two skills. Like the fisherman that picks the right times, the right places and the right baits to catch more fish, acquiring and combining some of the above skills can have exponential results.
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