Tough negotiations

Negotiation

How to negotiate your way around most things without tripping over a book by an ex FBI expert.

Short explanation to save confusion

A negotiation is any scenario when two people or groups discuss a situation in order to reach an agreed conclusion and course of action. I insist on the “action”, because academic agreements are so often futile and only come to life when someone attempts to give them life by doing something. Likewise there is no commitment behind any agreement that is not tied to an action commitment.
If you visit Acme engineering, present the latest 3d Copier system and attempt to get an order from them. That is a negotiation.  If your team meet the team at Microsoft to discuss how they will manage your new multi-million-pound system, that is a negotiation.
If you sit with a Rabbi and a Priest to discuss the nature of life, that is not a negotiation, interesting though it may be.

Key Points in any negotiation

Three things are proven to influence the outcome of a negotiation more than anything else:

1. The starting point of both sides.

2. The level of rapport that is maintained. 

3 Freedom of both sides to make decisions.

The background

Every negotiation, be it getting the bad guys to release grandma, selling a multi-million-pound system to a global company, or getting your 10 year old to go to bed has several things in common.

1 Background.

There is always a background and that background is the thing that led this person or entity to the frame of mind where they are right now and led you to be here about to enter a negotiation.

When you get experience of exploring these backgrounds, especially in post mortem, you will learn that the starting position of anybody in any negotiation is driven by this information and experiences, but is far from set in stone and is simply a current, in-the-moment interpretation of the background events and information.

If you want to give yourself a chance of influencing the starting point, then get to know and become part of the background and deal with negative baggage up front especially the emotional stuff. Handle it wrong and you can leave yourself a mountain to climb.

2. Emotional goals and fears.

Every party, including you, has a personal relationship to the situation at hand and is driven by fears and by goals that may be purely personal and not logical or necessarily, easily guessed at. These motivations and fears are also usually more powerful and more influential in the negotiation than anything else is.
Everybody with even the most tenuous connection to reality realises that for them at least, the only continuum is life, their life, not the situation and ultimately, they will be driven by the usual Maslovian motivators. Don’t be foolish enough to ”keep this business” , or you will fare very poorly.

3. Trust.

Trust needs to occur at some point before you can achieve a useful outcome. Trust is really in this instance, and perhaps in most cases, another way of describing emotional risk management. In fact, it encompasses all the stuff we have just been talking about.

Whether the other side knows it or not, whether they are trained or not, they will be intuitively assessing your background, your emotional needs, your communication preferences and whether you are likely to stab them in the back and whether they can believe a little, some or a lot of what you say.  If they are mature and experienced and if you represent a bigger organisation, then they will understand that you are not really in charge and can only make some commitments, but they will be looking to see whether you are honest about this or when you are happy to mislead.

Trust usually begins by suspending disbelief. Rather like watching a movie, we are willing to pretend we trust until proven wrong. That’s as good as it gets in most business relationships, just remember that you are constantly under scrutiny and trust must be maintained indefinitely, though you do get a little overdraft after a while and the balance grows with time.

We defined the background as a key element and then we confusingly broke it into three parts, one of which is background. I resisted the temptation to rename it like a writer might, because it says again it’s all about background, background and more background. The third one of course being yours.

3.     I see

Becoming familiar with the background requires introspection as well as listening. The only thing that is almost dispensable is talking other than to ask questions or say, “I see” or “Right”.

4.     I want to learn

This is most definitely not the default position for anyone and that does include you. You can’t avoid it because your brain was designed to run faster than an entire planet full of powerful computers by using one simple concept: Bias. The reason you can decide so much faster than your computer on many things is because you enter every situation in your life heavily biased and you don’t look at the facts at all apart from rare occasions.  This is why People who are Black are accused of crimes more than anyone else. Somebody promoted this bias in the distant past, it’s nearly always about their own guilt, and it lives on to the extent that otherwise intelligent people feel at risk walking down a street of predominantly black people. Many of them even know it is bias and still feel it.  Welcome to you. Now that’s ok most days as long as you keep it to yourself, because blacks, big people, women, gingers, me etc are all biased too, (they’re not different, remember), so don’t lose too much sleep, just manage the inner lizard.
This however, is a negotiation, you need to learn very quickly and very accurately how the other side got to where they are right now and judge what wiggle room there is to influence that position. Success absolutely depends on it and you need to dump the bias, wash out your ears and get listening.
That means among other things that you should have not one hypothesis about where this might go, but one for every possible eventuality and your ears and brain should be busy informing and refining these until it becomes obvious which one is elected today. This way you place your bets after the race not before. That’s an awful lot of work and that in turn is why negotiators work in teams. By the way a team is not one worker and bunch of cheer leaders, especially not in a negotiation. And it goes without saying, you cant have a worker and a team of dissenters, even quietly dissenting.

5.     I want to achieve win/win

A good outcome to this negotiation will be one where the other side feel that they gain significantly, your side gains significantly and you as a result gain significantly. This is Win/Win. Just remember it’s the sense of gain and loss avoidance that counts not the metrics.
Bear this in mind always. After the conclusion of this negotiation your opposite number must be able to sit with friends, or colleagues and explain that he got a good deal out of this and couldn’t have done much better. By that I don’t mean screwed you over, I mean a good deal. If you work towards this goal you will be a very successful negotiator. As you have probably guessed, you will first need to understand the background and connect with the emotional and personal needs to understand what a good deal would look like. Then you can start moving the chess pieces.
Just remember, Win/Win relies on a good deal and that is mostly in the perception of others. You can often influence that perception, but don’t read books about hostage negotiation and imagine you are going to con a business man about the value of his balance sheet. Negotiating with emotionally unstable terrorists (I would argue that is the majority) has little in common with business negotiations with fairly rational people.
Where you can influence the perception of a deal is by recognising needs that even the other side may not have recognised before and solving them as part of the deal in return for other concessions. That is the ultimate form of win/win and the art of doing this is all about listening.

6.     I don’t want to be made to look foolish

Remember that every negotiator, whether it is a husband buying a TV while his wife is away, or a government team negotiating on behalf of a democracy, the negotiator must be able to walk away from the negotiation and look good in front of stakeholders and peers. If you challenge this, you won’t have very much luck. This forms another key cornerstone of trust.
It’s hard to imagine a negotiation going well after an acrimonious and public slanging match, but then no professional would try something like that, would they?

7.     Communication

This is happening by consent.
Anyone who has seen a refusal to communicate, understands the totality of that and will recognise that all other scenarios are at least one point in the scale better than none.  Only the act of attending the burial of a friend or loved-one really comes close to communicating that finality of “No communication”.

Why? Because we all have the knowledge and the power to shut up, unless we are in a modern-day concentration camp being water-boarded or whatever. I would argue that this is not communication anyhow and a waste of time largely. When this person is talking to you, they are willing to inform you and to hear your viewpoint and have accepted the possibility of changing their viewpoint, however complex the dance might be and however many barriers they have to leap over first. That is a valuable position to be in, don’t waste it. Most negotiators understand the value of keeping channels of communication open and receptive, which brings us in due course to relationships.

8.     Rapport

A harmless little word, don’t get too carried away, I’m being the writer now and avoiding the over use of “trust”. Rapport is a form of trust. Rapport is qualified by; I understand most of your language and you understand mine, I respect your part in the conversation and you respect mine. I can accept at least some of what you say at face value and you likewise and neither of us need hesitate to question or to pause the discussion. It says that at some level both feel able to speak with limited fear of causing an unexpected offense or reaction.  Rapport also assumes that people are listening and communicating willingly and keen to gain insights. That is roughly what I mean by rapport.
Rapport assumes a number of things and specifically that you now have insight into the background and some awareness of the wiggle room and have communicated a similar sense to the other side.
When a team is in rapport, conversations flow and people question each other on some small aspect of an answer or a question, thus demonstrating this active taking part.
It is not by any means a conclusion or even the promise of one, but rapport signifies a smoothly sailing ship. No communication will be very successful without rapport.

When you have rapport in any normal conversation, you will often find yourself unwittingly speaking at the sort of pace the other person speaks, altering your vocabulary a little to mirror theirs, even altering your accent on occasion. Likewise you will often notice similar moves on behalf of the other side. If you can’t discern any attempt at all to establish this level of rapport, it might sometimes be a sign that you are not quite on a level playing field yet. Negative signs are obviously going to begin with the opposite of the “mirroring“ moves I described and often when there are two teams, you will see the speaker making eye contact with his team members when speaking to you or your team. In this case he is in-fact talking to them for their benefit and/or seeking their approval and it says he is unsure about where his team are positioned or is feeling personally vulnerable.  You then would need to tackle those problems and make his peace with the team for him, for example, by questioning individual team members to get their views for his benefit, by giving detailed explanations, perhaps for the benefit of your own team member but really to bring him up to speed and save his blushes.
Eye contact and Mirroring are too key metrics for measuring and establishing rapport.

In their book, “Never Split the difference” 2017 Chris Voss and Tal razz describe a test where waiters tested their ability to increase tips by using either Rapport (In this case reading back to them their order before leaving) compared with using Positive reinforcing statements (e.g congratulating their choice). The Rapport group did wildly better. Proving that we mostly value rapport and not BS however flattering it might be.

9.     Terms of reference

In this case I am referring to any written or unwritten, spoken or unspoken rules that two sides agree to respect in the course of their negotiation.

In a formal meeting environment, in particular with a board, or committee, it is wise to agree a written TOR and include in it a process for reviewing and changing it. In simpler negotiations such as a sales presentation, addressing an issue with a supplier, talking your mother-in-law off the roof, then it is still important to have terms but they will generally be very much more subtle. An example I recently encountered was a process to procure a large expensive software system with many millions of pounds at stake. The supplier representative began by outlining their normal approach and asking if we are happy to stick with that or would we prefer to change it a bit. I made several changes and was happy that we had a framework and that it did not disadvantage my position.
In the bad old days a Double glazing salesmen would allegedly take a sandwich box and his slippers from his briefcase before he began his three hour spiel. I doubt this ever happened in real life, but it described negotiating the terms of reference, i.e. I’m not leaving till you sign the order and yes sales schools definitely do teach their students about setting the scene often referred to as pre-amble. He was also setting something else, the tone, which in this case was unacceptable. I’d have exercised my penalty kick prowess on his Rear-end at that point.

10. Tone

Once the tone has been set and more often than not this happens in its own time in its own way, it can be extremely influential and not that easy to change.

An example might be the meeting I held with a global software outfit whose system had put us out of business for hours yet again costing millions in revenue and damaging our reputation and despite all previous reassurances. It would have been difficult for them to set an ideal tone, but nevertheless, they did a great job of managing it.

11. Boundaries, red-lines and set-asides

Boundaries

Defining boundaries refers to the scope beyond which this negotiation cannot reach. Often that is driven by distant stakeholders who would need to be engaged, legal frameworks and many other things. Boundaries refer to the subject matter being discussed rather than to the outcomes.

Red-lines

Red lines are points in the outcome, as opposed to the negotiations and they define genuinely unacceptable outcomes that are stated up front as being not acceptable.

Set-asides

These refer to tricky discussion points that are not impossible but are currently too tricky to make much progress with. I have often referred to them as TDPs (Original I know). Sometimes it may be that they trigger emotional response, or it may be sheer complexity, often though it is simply that they are part of a bigger interconnected block of issues and are hard to decide on in isolation. They also can have a strategic impact on other decisions and thus cause reluctance for one or other sides to progress. The best approach to TDPs often is to agree to set them aside and return to them later, ideally at an agreed point.

12. Pot holes

Pot holes are those mindsets, perceptions or genuine barriers that stand between you and a good result. They are not the core content but the side issues and perceptions.  Sales trainers also talk about these under the heading of objections, though in that case they are more closely related to the negotiation result. The key difference being that a sales negotiation has too outcomes, a sale or no sale, whereas the typical other negotiation has many or limitless potential outcomes.
e.g  regardless how it is voiced, the Pot Hole may be a message from the other side saying “But I don’t trust you to do that”.  In this case it matters little what you promise, because your promises are not accepted at face value anyhow. That is a pot hole and a particularly deep one. It is different from, “OK, but that’s more than I have authority to spend” The latter is a classic part of negotiating a price. The latter might be resolved by reducing the cost elsewhere in the deal so they remain within budget.
One rule you absolutely must keep in mind is that some potholes just can’t be filled in or bridged over fully. Pot holes must be addressed sufficiently before you can hope to proceed with a successful negotiation and they are the most common cause of a failure or a poor outcome.

13. Momentum

Sometimes referred to as cadence, this is a key element in successful negotiations, especially when the process continues over days, weeks, or longer. A good cadence creates a feeling of a sort of rhythm in the way things are progressing and as a result triggers an expectation of a certain degree of progress today and tomorrow etc. This is far more powerful than most people imagine and affects every aspect of our lives. Managing this momentum can be very tricky in a negotiation and it would be a mistake to do so too actively, but to be aware of the impact on momentum of failing to agree something in a timeframe can lead to agreeing something in order to maintain the momentum and that can be very valuable in it’s own right. Agreeing or disagreeing are more habit forming than many narcotics and it is dangerous to create a precedence for something that has negative impacts.
Stay within the path of agreement where possible, however slow the progress and build that momentum slowly. Momentum is just as powerful going backwards and rides on its own style of gravity. If the happenings of the negotiation are being widely communicated, then the momentum becomes even more important.

14. Reporting

Negotiators have always reported back to superiors and often need to confer. This is a subject that should be covered in the TOR process too, but it will continue and it will have an impact. If the other side are perceived to be doing badly, they won’t be well supported and will then need to make unreasonable demands or otherwise affect the proceedings.

There will also be misreporting of events that make them look better in front of their peers, but in that process, misrepresent your input. It is imperative you get your side of the story out and ideally before theirs. Keep it factual and don’t create any potential conflict, just make it difficult for them to mislead anyone. This reporting has potential of itself to strengthen trust and rapport. Especially when you help the team to gain status back at their base, but equally it has the potential to create barriers and engender unwelcome behaviour and long delays.

15. Closure

Gaining action is the ultimate goal of the negotiation (we’ll return to this thought) so it is natural to simply ask for it when the time comes and it is totally intuitive. Rather like riding a horse nervously, it can be extremely risky to feel any form of nervousness in doing this, because it is always communicated to the other side. The horse refuses to jump or the negotiating team ask for timeout. Booth events can create pain and disappointment for you.

The simple way to remove any fear or doubt, apart from simply gaining experience, is to understand the process and measure carefully the existence of all the key elements needed to close the negotiation successfully.

When you have enough experience behind you, you will begin every negotiation focused on the close. That most definitely does not mean becoming obsessed with getting your way. That is one-way street to pain for both sides. What it means is that you ask yourself what conditions will need to be in place before we can ask the closing question with confidence and then you set about systematically solving the problems and establishing the conditions you want.

This is another of those circumstances where you place the bet after the race has run and you’ve seen the results. The process begins with the question “Ok that didn’t go as well as I had hoped, what would I do differently if I could start over again?”
Now you answer the question as best you can and set about verifying or changing these answers through your dialogue with the other side. Some hours days, weeks, or months later, you will ask the question with complete confidence about the answer you are going to receive.



Process provides a supporting backdrop for any key endeavour, but rigid process is stifling. It is important to understand the process well enough to be able to think and act naturally without straying too far from plan and always find your way backThe process above shows a simple well-worn approach that applies to everything from a marketing plan to a hostage negotiation and focuses the team on what they are trying to achieve and avoid, but doesn’t tell anyone what to do.

Visualising the forces and influences and discussing these with the  team after, or before the next session, is a very important activity because it provides a view of the current state of play and helps to point out approaching risks and opportunities.
In addition to maintaining this type of force-field chart, there is enormous value in engaging the entire team to collect and discuss the insights picked up by different team members and if this is a team that regularly negotiates it is valuable to let team members take on specific roles based on their own strengths to look out for sub plots, hidden messages and all the other aspects of communication that are missed on a daily basis by all of us.

The Map

In the above scenario, the way forward is blocked by your own unrealistic goal and the scope.
Nobody ever is free to make decisions entirely on their own, there are always stakeholders of some kind who must be pleased. If you are dealing with a country leader they have voters and most senior leaders in any area have the press to think about. Most businesses have Senior Management Teams and the Board to satisfy. Getting past a line in the sand such as a maximum budget can be a big ask, but if it is possible then you will need deep understanding of what is driving the specific figure and who must agree before it changes.

In the past I have overcome it by agreeing a new business case after phase one had proved itself and then the budget could be increased. I have also found it to be simply a financial year issue and delivering in phases that conveniently mirrored the financial years solved the impasse. There are plenty of creative solutions when there is a will to explore the real needs and be creative, but this, like most things can only built on rapport and trust.

Other tools

The lie detector

Truths are all around us and are assumed in everyday life. When somebody goes to lengths to impress something on you there is therefore a very strong reason to assume it is probably a lie. In fact, it is often a decent bet that the truth is the polar opposite. Every race, or village in the world has a joke about “How do you know a xxx is lying?  His lips are moving.  Well, It is based on a degree of science.
Here are some certainties you can bet the mortgage on all day every day:  Somebody begins with “I wouldn’t lie to you”.  They are about to lie.
Once you know what the other side are angling for and you can plot them on a situation chart, you can easily mock up their strategy meeting and pre-empt precisely what they will want to impress on you as you move towards the next stage and you can know what to watch out for,
After a little experience with anyone a police officer will have noted the signs of a truthful answer and will l suspect all other others with a fair degree of accuracy. Holding a bad opinion of everybody is however their worst blind spot and you would do well not to fall into it. Being wary is not the same as being driven by bias.

The power of time

Only sex attracts more lines of sheer organic fertilizer in books and media than does time. Most people in business who don’t have a deadline probably have paranoia. They wouldn’t know what to do without one, but they are almost always irrelevant and the only downside of missing them is that you make the bosses day by finally giving him a purpose in life. If you can handle the odd stare you can do yourself an enormous favour by doing things right rather than to a deadline and in the medium term you will also get more done, but is this much more important when it comes to negotiation.

Nothing is more destructive than rushing a negotiation just to meet an imaginary deadline that has no or very little foundation in reality. A negotiation is like a cake it is ready when it is ready and taking it out too soon will ruin it entirely. They don’t always go back in and bake well. If you know that all the points have been covered and agreed and it is just a matter of moving, then sometimes it requires a gentle nudge, this is totally justified and indeed very necessary to execute immediately, but it is not the same as setting an unrealistic time deadline at the outset or part-ways through.

You can also use time as a persuader. As a youngster I helped to school horses and it included teaching them to go in a box and so forth and it is a great introduction to negotiation because these guys weight half a ton and can strike with five deadly weapons. Fear is mostly the cause of issues especially when combined with poor communication and next comes mistrust but if they succeed with bad behaviour it very quickly becomes a default response, therefore you must not try and fail.. Sometimes the only way you get him in the box is to face him towards the door, relax him and yourself then sit it out. It can take a long while but sooner or later he gives in and just walks calmly into the box. No broken bones and a good outcome. This works in negotiations with people too.