Improving Your Negotiating Skills: Tips learned in the Trenches

Improving Your Negotiating Skills:  Tips learned in the Trenches

By David Wachtel

At the beginning of training sessions, I ask students what makes them uncomfortable about negotiating.  The answers generally are:

“I am afraid I will not get the best deal.”

“I do not enjoy working with certain types of people.”

“I am not always clear on what needs to be accomplished in a particular negotiation and how to get there.”

“I can get lost in the process.  While getting bogged down in details, I lose track of what I really want to accomplish.”

Here are some tips to help with your negotiating efforts:

Tip #1: Negotiating is not merely a series of compromises

Most people negotiate using a zero sum process.  They look at what they want, raise that 10 or 15 percent, and then engage is a series of compromises to get to a result.  The effort is on the position they take, and getting as much of that position for themselves as possible.  Their mission is not to get a satisfactory deal for both parties.  It is to win.  Many call that, “being a tough negotiator.”  It is extremely stressful.

The tendency is to negotiate from the standpoint of positions.  Most negotiators never really stop to ask why they want, what they want, or even consider why the other side is negotiating.

Fisher and Ury define negotiating as “Back and forth communication where some interests are shared and some are opposed.”  The purpose of negotiating is seeing if you can get your interests met through an agreement.  An interest is why you want something, not what you want.  When negotiators begin working from the standpoint of interests, they can begin to work with the other party to explore alternative solutions.

What I have found interesting is the number of students who find informing the other side why they want something uncomfortable.  They compare it to showing their cards.  Negotiating does not have to be arguing over who gets the most.  At its best, it is two parties working to solve a problem.  The problem cannot be solved to everyone’s satisfaction unless all parties understand it.  Why the parties want something is where the process of problem solving begins.

Knowing a negotiating process is important…but…

Tip #2: It’s your people skills that can make the difference

  • First, you need to know how your behavior impacts others.
  • Next, understand that everyone has their own preferred way of communicating and it may not be your way.
  • Effective negotiators are the ones that can alter their communication style to meet the needs of the listener.

At Hautacam Consulting, we utilize Inscape Publishing’s DiSC© product.  It is designed to describe a person’s behavior when their personality interacts with a selected environment, like negotiating on behalf of your company or organization.  Using this program, students identify their natural negotiating style and begin to understand how others may view them.  You begin to see why you may be more comfortable with one person and less with another.  It is easier to talk to people who have similar styles.  We focus most of our time learning how to talk to people with less compatible styles.

The first step is to build a level of understanding of the four DiSC© Dimensions of Behavior attributes, and how they interact.  They are:

  1. Dominant:  Dominant people are good at making decisions.    They want to control their environment, and do so by solving problems and meeting challenges.  They are very direct and they are good at telling. They are self-confident but can sometimes be perceived as intimidating and arrogant.  Questioning and listening does not come naturally to dominants.  They tend to move toward goals without considering multiple solutions or outcomes.  For that reason, others often find them impatient and uncaring.  They use a bottom line approach.  They are good at stating why something will not work.  As a result, they may be seen as negative.  To dominants, results are much more important than how people feel.
  2. influence: Like a person who is Dominant,  influencers are good at telling but they use a less direct method.  They want to convince and motivate you, rather than forcing you to do something.  Rather than being task focused like a Dominant, they are focused on completing the task with people.  Influencers see the possibilities in a plan or idea, rather than the pitfalls.  At their best, they can be viewed as visionaries.  The influencer may view the Dominant as “negative” and the Dominant may view the influencer as “unrealistic” or even “political”.  Both want to make the decision, and are leaders.  Influencers like to make favorable impressions and want a relationship. They can appear to be impulsive and disorganized.  Attention to detail is not an asset because they prefer to look at the bigger picture.  Influencers are social, and usually know a lot of people.  They want to get results, but their focus is on motivating people to get the results, together.
  3. Steadiness:  Steadiness people, like influencers when looking at new ideas will see the positive aspects.  Unlike the influencer, they do not like change even if it is positive.  They perceive themselves as less powerful than their environment and feel that all will be well if everyone will just work harder, together, on the status quo.  They are excellent listeners, and consider things before responding.  Like the influencer, they are focused on people.  They are extremely dependable, solid team players.  High Dominant and influence styles that negotiate with people who are in the Steadiness style have to be careful as they like immediate responses. The Steadiness style likes to think before responding.  They are very methodical, and reserved.  They are opposites of dominants and influencers.
  4. Conscientious:  Like Steadiness, they are introverted and reserved. But, like the dominant, they are task and control focused.  When negotiating, your statements must be factual and have a point.  They are perfectionists.  Their approach is indirect, reserved, business-like, and diplomatic. Unless you can give them reasons supported by facts, they do not readily accept change.   They believe that if people will follow processes and procedures, many problems will be solved and change becomes unnecessary. Facts and processes are most important and people are a secondary consideration.

An influencer, negotiating with a person who uses the conscientious style has to have accurate facts and support information.  Detail is not a strong suit for influencers.  Dominants have to have patience with the conscientious style, as dominants will want to make a decision and get on with it.  A limitation of the conscientious style is that in their zeal to get all the facts, they can appear to be indecisive.

Regardless of the intensity of one or two of the attributes that an individual may have, everyone possesses some of all of them.  This is identified through the Classic Profile.  This profile examines the intensity of each attribute in comparison to the others.  The negotiator gets a complete picture on how they tend to behave, and how to effectively communicate with different types of people.  The Classic Profile includes an evaluation of how your style tends to behave in consideration of the following:

  • Emotions
  • Goals
  • Judging others
  • Influencing others
  • Value to an organization
  • Tendencies that can be overused
  • Behavior under pressure
  • Fears
  • How to increase effectiveness

You may use one or more attributes less, because they feel uncomfortable.  But to be most effective, learning how to use them when needed is important.

When people of different styles interact, it can be negative.  The influencer, negotiating with a conscientious style makes a comment with a minor statistic about the quality of a product.  It is questioned and cannot be supported.  The steadiness style negotiating with a person in the dominant category wants to consider answers to questions.  While thinking, the dominant person begins to talk again, filling the silence, pushing for an answer or decision.  An influencer, negotiating with a dominant will answer questions with a story or anecdote rather than using a shorter direct approach.  All of these seemingly small things can become huge in the midst of a negotiation.

To maximize your efforts, not only recognizing the style of others, but fully understanding your own tendencies and being flexible when necessary is important.

Being an effective communicator begins with being an outstanding listener…

Tip #3: The most powerful negotiating skill is listening

You learn the interests of the other party through listening.  Some styles are better at this than others, but the fact is that we are typically not good listeners.  Most listen to reply, not to understand.

To illustrate this, refer to the study that Dr. Albert Mehrabian, of UCLA, did on the ways we communicate:

  • Words: 7%
  • Tone of Voice: 38%
  • Body Language: 55%

Even good listeners are asking questions and attempting to listen to the words.  But words only comprise 7% of how we communicate.  Communication is 93% non-verbal.  It is no wonder that so much gets lost between the speaker’s lips and our ears.  Non-verbal communication is also important in determining the speaker’s style.

Effective questioning is the first step toward learning the interests of the other party.  In order to be effective at asking questions, three things must take place:

  1. Know where your questions are going.  Most people find randomly asked questions to be unnerving and it makes them distrust you.
  2. Ask the other party if it is all right with them if you ask questions.
  3. Then tell them what information you are seeking.

Use the three levels of listening to get information:

  1. Selective:  we hear things that we believe are important.
  2. Responsive:  this lets the other party know that you are, indeed, paying attention.  It involves verbal and physical feedback, nodding, or asking, “Tell me more about that.”
  3. Playback: restating what you think you heard and asking for confirmation.  It is also good to follow up with a confirming question.  An example would be, “Have I gotten everything, or might there be something I missed?”

As you work through issues in the negotiation, playback can also be used as a “mini-close” making it more difficult for an issue to resurface later.  “I missed that.  When we talked earlier, we agreed on this.  What did I miss?  Do we need to talk about this more so I can better understand its importance to you?”

Effective questioning and listening can provide solutions to the problem.  By getting the other party to talk, and listening to their responses, a positive message is sent.  This greatly increases trust and keeps tension low.  People will do business with you because you are perceived as:

  • Trustworthy
  • An adequate problem solver
  • Adding value to the relationship

Effectively seeking information through questioning and listening will help develop these perceptions.

Tip #4: Develop a plan before beginning to negotiate

Wen I ask in training sessions, I find that few people do any in-depth planning before negotiating.  I am not referring to determining how much will be spent, how long to complete a project, or what their walk-away number might be.  I am talking about detailed planning, which involves trying to determine what the other side may want, and why.

Your plan should include the following:

  • Try to determine the negotiating style of the other party (DiSC© style).  This helps you think through how best to communicate and then go through the process of confirming if you were correct.  If you do not know the other party at all, you will have to make educated guesses and adjust as you go.
  • What are our/my interests?  This is not what you want, but why.  Make sure that you examine all of your interests as there may be more than one.
  • What are the interests of the other side?  A major part of the negotiation process is determining the other side’s interests.  This goes back to Fisher and Ury’s definition of negotiations…where some interests are shared and some are opposedOpposing interests are what you negotiate.
  • What do I have that I can trade that is low value to me and of high value to the other side?  In the give and take phase of the negotiation process, having considered these options ahead of time can make this less stressful.  Less effective negotiators will not have considered this, and will want to go through a series of positional compromises.
  • What are three options I can use to move the negotiation from compromising to joint problem solving?  These can all begin with, “What if we tried…?”, or “What if we did this…?
  • What is the very least that is acceptable?

You must determine:

    1. What do we aspire to?
    2. What will we be content with?
    3. What can we live with?
  • What is my Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement? (BATNA)

This is a key concept.  You do not want to accept an outcome that is worse that what you may have done otherwise.

Your BATNA is what you can or will do if an agreement cannot be reached.

What you can live with in Step 6 has to be better than your BATNA.  Otherwise, why negotiate?

Ask yourself what they other side’s BATNA may be.  Why are they talking to you?  What is preventing them from doing it with someone else, or on their own?

More on planning:

In the fall of 2004, Negotiator Magazine did a reader poll.  One of the questions asked had to do with planning and it was reported that as much as 40% of the time spent negotiating is internal.  Sometimes, the most difficult part of planning and negotiating can be with your own team.

If thought through in advance, you can compare where you are in the negotiation to your plan.  You are also less likely to agree to an unacceptable outcome.  If you find yourself getting lost in comparison to your plan, you can caucus, take a time out, and rethink where you are.

Tip #5: The Top 10 Factors for Successful Negotiating

A colleague, Tony Nagle of A.G. Nagle Company, Inc., shared this list with me:

  1. Know what you want: The clearer you are on your interests and goals, the better your chance of success.
  2. Know the other side: Learn as much as you can about the people with whom you will be negotiating.  Know their negotiating style (DiSC©), their backgrounds, hopes, fears, aspirations, and their interests.  Little things do not mean a lot, they can mean everything.
  3. Consider the timing and method of negotiations: Change the game to win-win problem solving by negotiating from interests, not positions.
  4. Prepare point by point: Negotiators who prepare outperform those that do not.
  5. Offer benefits for accepting your offer: You are much more likely to close if you offer the benefit…the “what’s in it for them?” test.
  6. Frame your negotiation around one or two key points: Keep it as simple as possible by framing and reframing to keep things on track and reach agreements more efficiently.
  7. Know your BATNA: Your personal power comes from the ability to walk away if you are not able to reach an agreement. Effective negotiators not only know when to walk away, but how to walk away leaving the relationship intact.
  8. Prepare options for mutual gain: Be creative.  Find innovative ways for both sides to get their interests met.  “What if we tried this?”
  9. Listening is the most powerful negotiation skill: It will help you learn where your interests are shared with the other side, where they are opposed, and get a satisfactory outcome.
  10. Use the power of the draft: Always put your agreements in writing.

Changing the way you think about negotiating (joint problem solving versus a series of compromises where one party may win and one may lose) is the first step toward better results.  Recognizing the reasons why people act the way they do, and having the ability to communicate to a broad range of behavioral styles gives the negotiator the ability to be reach satisfactory outcomes more consistently.  Following a process or strategy is fine, but understanding the styles of the people with whom you are negotiating, and altering your approach to communicate more effectively can be the key to success.  Last, developing a plan in advance of the actual negotiation will give the negotiator more confidence, and lead to better and more consistent results.

About the Author

David A. Wachtel is the president of Hautacam Consulting, Inc., an Indianapolis based organization that provides training and coaching in negotiations, sales, change management, communication/conflict resolution, and management development. His experience includes a 20 year career in the insurance industry covering both the sales and underwriting/risk management functions from both the perspective of the company and the agent. Mr. Wachtel is a graduate of Butler University and holds the Associate in Underwriting designation. David Wachtel may be reached through his web site at

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