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Negotiation Skills

Whenever you're problem solving, the journey that gets you to the answer is at least as important as getting the answer. Since negotiation is problem solving, do remember that it is first and foremost a process, not an event.

Below are the eight fundamental steps in the process of negotiation. Note that only steps five and six involve the actual discussions for resolving the problematic issues. The set-up and wrap-up to this solution finding are just as vital for ultimate negotiation success, so follow all the steps carefully.

After the basic explanation of each step, be sure to read the accompanying Tips sections. You'll get suggestions, techniques, as well as do's and don'ts to give you further guidance during the entire process.

1. What am I doing?

In some cases, doing homework will involve actual research. For example, if you're buying a particular type of car or appliance, you'll want to know what you're getting, who sells it, and what the reasonable price range is before you start any haggling. But most other times -- especially with friend or family conflicts -- doing homework will involve straight self-analysis. This is the first major step to any negotiation.

Here, you must really do some reflecting. You have to be absolutely clear about what is important to you and what you have on your side; only then can you start to think about specifics.

Below are several of the important ideas you need to wrestle with before you meet the other side:

  • What are your goals? Positions? Underlying interests? You must know not only what you want, but why you want it and what you hope it will bring you.
  • What's your temperament, personality and style when dealing with people and problems? Do any of your emotions flare up easily? If so, which ones? What triggers them, and how can you control them?
  • What information do you have about the issues? What do you still need to know?
  • What's your competitive advantage (your strongest points)? Your weaknesses? What are the likely counter-arguments and how do you think you'd deal with them? What's your strategy?
  • What are the worst, neutral and best solutions you can expect?
  • Any time constraints or other limitations on your part?

2. Who am I really talking to?

The next step is to get to know the other person or people involved in the conflict and negotiations. You don't need a degree in psychology to tune in to people's thoughts and behavior either; just pay attention, talk and think. It will really help you to get into an analytical frame of mind.

Before you sit down with the other party in a quiet, neutral spot, take some time and do an analysis of the other side similar to the one you just completed in the previous step. Obviously you can't read a person's mind and you will be making some assumptions, but assumption making is part of the process. You'll be learning more first-hand soon, so it's okay to make educated guesses at this point.

Understand the other person's situation and how they see reality. What does their personality seem like? What drives them? What are their needs, goals, competitive advantages, BATNAs, and interests? If their BATNA is poor, this will be good for you since they'll have a greater motivation to try and make negotiations work. If you have a history with this person, what are their reactions like? How far can you push? Any other psychological factors you can think of?

Think and talk about this when the two of you get together. Get to know each other. Feel comfortable. It's not a question of "know your enemy" but "know your partner."

There are two crucial reasons to go through all this "getting to know you" business, and it isn't just for small talk. First, understanding your partner before tackling the issues will help you separate the person from the problem. Too often, it's tempting to see the person and problem as the same thing. Negotiations are not the arena for getting personal, or blaming, or resorting to emotional outbursts. Remember: you're trying to be civilized.

The second reason is that you must learn to see things from different points of view if you hope to be a good negotiator. See yourself as others see you, and try and see others as they see themselves. Remember, reality is seen through many different eyes, not just your own.

3. What are we negotiating about?

"So everyone knows everyone; now it's time for the real negotiating, right?" Wrong. Steps three and four will get you down to business, but still in a preparation mode. Item one on the agenda is to get all the relevant facts straight.

Here is where most negotiations find the parties exchanging initial proposals, discussing issues generally, and getting things clearly defined. You must go through this organization phase to make sure that you and the other side are "on the same page," so to speak. If you have different items on the agenda, negotiating will be difficult.

It's even worse if you don't realize this beforehand. You may end up talking about one point while the other side talks about something else -- and all the while you both assume you're discussing the same matter.

Clouded issues are another concern. A wise negotiator once said "You can't argue about a fact; you can only be ignorant of it." Keep this in mind when you're deciding what the relevant facts and issues really are. If you do start arguing at this point, think about why emotions are being triggered and what is being threatened. Is it just opinions that are erupting early or is there an underlying issue that's not being dealt with? Facts alone shouldn't induce argument.

"Too often, negotiation or conflict resolution is clouded by issues that are below the surface, " says Ed Wertheim, writer, negotiation workshop teacher and a professor at Northeastern University. "For example, a conflict over getting a college application out in time is really a conflict over control or some other deeper issue. We need to try to be very clear what we are really negotiating about."

4. What are we negotiating for?

Once you've defined the issues to everyone's satisfaction, take some time to discuss what it is you are both trying to achieve. Usually this consists of an opening statement by both parties as to their goals and objectives, and what they're prepared to do to settle the dispute.

Since opposing interests -- or what you think are opposing interests -- are at the root of most conflicts, you need to focus on interests and not positions. That is, what you need (or why you want something) rather than just what you want. To demonstrate how important it is to separate interests and positions, read the following example provided by Cohen:

"The classic story to illustrate this describes two sisters fighting over the only orange in the family larder. Each sister must have the entire orange for herself; any less is impossible.

A wise parent asks each of the girls (in private) why she wants the orange. One explains she wants to drink the juice; the other wants to use the rind to cook a pudding. What each sister wants is her position; why she wants it is her interest.

In this case, the simple solution is to give the cook the rind after the juice has been squeezed for the thirsty sister -- thus meeting the interests of both."

Now after you've established the real interests of both sides, you must also give some thought to the desired outcome of both parties. The outcome of negotiating will depend on how important it is to fulfill your needs and the other's needs. There are five basic kinds of outcomes.

If your needs are most important and you don't care about the other side's, you've set up a competitive or "win-lose" situation. If both needs are very important, you're in a "win-win" situation. Compromise is meeting in the middle so both needs are only moderately important.

Avoidance is an indifference of any needs, and accommodation is when your needs don't matter and you simply yield to the other side.

So what outcome should you shoot for? A good rule of thumb is to aim for a "win-win" scenario. Most any situation can be turned into a "win-win" and this way everybody can gain.

Your goal should be to always try and succeed in agreeing, not to defeat or cave in.

"Aim for a win-win solution," says Jan Clark, coordinator of educational programs for work and family balance at the University of Missouri-Columbia. "Both parties should feel they have ended up with something they needed or wanted. When individuals are satisfied with the outcome, they will be more likely to work to make it succeed."

5. Where do we disagree?

Finally you can get down to tackling the issues and ideas that you have spent so long preparing for and understanding.

When you start talking about the problem and solutions for mutual gain, the first obstacle you'll encounter is that points of disagreement will emerge. These conflicts and disagreements are natural and should be expected.

Just because negotiation is supposed to settle conflict doesn't mean that it's a smooth ride. If it were, that would mean the solution was evident and acceptable -- in which case negotiation probably wouldn't be needed in the first place! If handled well, differences of opinion will bring you two closer together. Remember, negotiation discussions are not a test of power but really a chance to reveal needs.

As such, you have the right to disagree. But you can't "just say no" in this instance. You have to back it up or offer a new avenue for discussion to keep the talks moving. That brings us to our next important point: communication.

More than any other process, negotiation demands good communication skills. This consists of speaking, listening and understanding. For the speaking part, just speak honestly, assertively, calmly and concisely, without talking down to the other person.

Active listening and understanding are aspects that are linked. Listening means paying attention when the other person speaks; it's more than just hearing! It also means giving feedback, maintaining eye contact, and pondering the implications of what is being said.

"Remember, you learn more with your mouth closed and ears open than the other way around," emphasizes Cohen. "Listen to what others say; take their opinions seriously into consideration. Don't just try and wait them out so you can 'zap' them when they finally shut up. If you listen well, your response is far more likely to be something to which they will react favorably."

Pay attention to what is not said as well. Silence -- even avoidance -- and non-verbal communication like body language speaks volumes. Observe what the other party says and does, and what they don't say or do, as well as how they do these things. Be aware of what you're transmitting too.

Furthermore, be as objective as you can be and use good sound logic and data to back up your arguments. For instance, if you're negotiating with your parents for a later curfew, don't whine or keep harping on what "you deserve" or what is "fair" according to other kids' parents. Be mature. Tell them you understand that they're worried and then remind them of the cell phone and that you're never out late all by yourself. Tell them what you'd give up if you missed curfew for an unacceptable reason. Remind them that they've changed your curfew in the past

In short, don't just say you're responsible: show them with your attitude! They will disagree at certain points, of course. But they're bound to be impressed by how you've thought things out. And listen to their concerns so you can respond accordingly to try and alleviate their fears.

6. What can we do about it?

There's a song by the Rolling Stones that starts "You can't always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you'll find you get what you need." This is particularly true at this stage of the negotiations.

This is when the idea of resolution -- rather than convincing -- and suggestions for more give-and-take make the most sense. Often, participants just tire or realize that gunning for positions is futile. So it's time to really hone in on those interests.

Also, now is the time for the "crunch," where words are being exhausted. It's the moment of truth: time for action and decision making. So what should you be doing?

Assess the trade-offs that have taken place and see what is fair. Did you receive concessions for whatever you traded off? Were the still-unreasonable offers of the other party at least justified on their part? Could you live with what has transpired or have you gained nothing? What about the other party?

Always make decisions based on objective criteria and principles, not emotion or stress. Don't rush or panic, either. That never helps things much.

If you reach an impasse, come up with more options by brainstorming together or conducting more research. If you positively can't settle on a "win-win," go for a compromise. If things seem bleak, seek the help of an impartial third party, or mediator, to step in. They can often bring much-needed objectivity to the proceedings.

7. How do we wrap things up?

At last you agree on a reasonable solution. The hardest part is over, but you're not done yet.

First, make sure that everyone understands what has been agreed to. Be explicit so there are no misunderstandings. To affirm, shake hands, get it in writing, or complete any other sign of commitment that the situation seems to call for. If it is a written contract, work out the specifics while both parties are still together so that proper language can be agreed upon.

Lastly, make sure you hold up your end of the bargain. This shows you're reliable and strengthens your reputation for any future negotiations. Never make a commitment you don't intend to fulfill.

8. What could I have done differently or better?

"We do a lot of negotiating. However, many of us don't get better at it, no matter how frequently we negotiate," reminds Wertheim. "What is critical is the act of reflecting on our negotiating and figuring out what went well and what didn't, and what we might have done differently."

While practice can make perfect for many skills, with negotiation you can only become better by understanding the dynamics at work and examining events in hindsight. Only then can you really get better at solving problems in a civilized way.