Is it possible that we’ve got the idea of negotiation all wrong?
Some of us do, anyway. It’s easy to think of negotiation as a game, or a contest—especially when you’re good at it! As you approach the table for a negotiation, it can be tempting to think about how you might crush your opponent, or how you might try to get as many of your terms agreed to as possible.
But in the end, that’s an empty and ineffective approach. Negotiation should really be about compromise. It should be about both parties involved feeling like they got something of valuable—not necessarily all of their wishes met, but at least a fair shake.
Everyone should walk away from the negotiation table feeling good about things; that’s the idea, anyway. It’s ideal because it builds a foundation for a long-term relationship from which both parties benefit. Consider: If the settlement you reach is lopsided or unfair, at least one party is going to be reluctant to come back to the negotiation table again. It’s essentially a burned bridge.
It’s not about winners and losers, then. Negotiation is really about clear and effective communication. Communication is how you arrive at a conclusion that leaves you happy, but also leaves your partner feeling like he or she was heard and respected.
The Lost Art of Listening
So what are the communication skills you need in order to be a more effective negotiator? Here’s an important tip: The list doesn’t begin with speaking. It begins with listening. Active listening is perhaps the most significant communication skill you will ever learn, and it’s what separates great negotiators from inexperienced and ineffective ones.
As the other person talks, don’t just think about how you’re going to respond, or what you’re going to say next. That’s a quick way to lose invaluable information. Instead, really focus on understanding the person’s values, goals, and point of view. Encourage the person to keep talking, rather than rushing to jump back into the dialogue. “Keep going,” is something great negotiators say all the time. Or: “Go on!”
Remember to read between the lines, too. It’s not just about what’s being said, but what’s being implied. Even body language can be telling. Be alert to whether the person seems open, calm, frustrated, or standoffish.
Reentering the Conversation
Even when you do start your part of the discussion again, your goal shouldn’t necessarily be to start rambling. Instead, ask questions. Try to learn what the other person is aiming for, and where you might find common ground. The more information you can gather, the better prepared you will be to reach an agreeable settlement.
Hopefully, your questions will encourage the other negotiator to follow suit and make some inquiries of you; that’s when you’ll really start arriving at common ground. In any case, work through your conversation as though it is a collaboration. Don’t communicate like you’re speaking to an adversary; communicate like you’re speaking with a colleague, someone with whom you’re working together to find a solution to a shared problem.
Remember that negotiation is about moving forward together. It may sound counterintuitive, but that’s the best way to reach an agreement that truly satisfies.
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