Handshake (2)

Negotiation is something that never seems to be out of the news, or out of our lives. Whether it’s the terms of EU membership, the future of UK steel, the forthcoming US electoral conventions or the latest deal we’re trying to conclude with a customer or supplier, the word is on everyone’s lips these days. What are the secrets of doing it well?

Some years ago we conducted a detailed analytical study of the verbal behaviours that skilled negotiators deploy – data that has formed the basis of the training for generations of our client delegates. Then, in 2014, we asked over 1,300 respondents in 52 countries to consider the way they negotiate now. Both sets of evidence are highly revealing.

Let’s step inside the meeting room and sit ourselves at the negotiating table.

To the inexperienced, negotiating is no more than bargaining or as it is sometimes unflatteringly known, haggling. In fact bargaining should only be part of what happens – and it should be strategically thought through. Suppose the other party makes a proposal: “We’re offering you a five per cent discount once your annual spend goes above £100,000”. You respond with a counterproposal: “Make it ten per cent”, right? Wrong.

Our original research showed that skilled negotiators made such counterproposals only half as often as average negotiators. And today, successful negotiators still make fewer counterproposals than unsuccessful – even though the 43 per cent who say they do is still too many.

Why should we avoid counterproposals? Because responding with an immediate alternative to the one proposed is tantamount to saying: “I’m not listening to you, I have certain targets and I’m sticking to them”. And if you’re not listening, you’re not really negotiating. Skilled negotiators use the other party’s proposal as the jumping off point for a whole range of exploratory discussions which are far more likely to resolve matters to their satisfaction and, who knows, might even grow the cake for both parties.

Getting to that point takes us into the key area of seeking information, as a distinct verbal behaviour.

One of the surprising findings of the original observational study was that skilled negotiators spent much more time seeking information than giving it – well over twice as much as the average person in fact. Why does that work better? Well, among many other things, by seeking reasons for the other party’s position you can explore their underlying strategic objectives; and by using incisive questions, you can create some doubt in their minds about their approach. Doubt creates movement and movement is what we want. In the new research, 68 per cent of successful negotiators make frequent use of questions.

As part of that give-and-take, the data says it’s good to avoid another common verbal behaviour trap: the one we term “Irritators”. Typically, these include annoying self-praising declarations like “I’m making you a very fair offer” or “I think you’ll agree a contract review in two years is very reasonable”. Skilled negotiators – the research tells us – are only a fifth as likely to use this kind of phrase as the average, and yet today, among 1,300 surveyed negotiators, 71 per cent freely admit using Irritators. That’s something that will have to change before we can call ourselves a nation of skilled negotiators.

A final thought that might help us crack the code. When the first Huthwaite International research was published, and in subsequent training events, people were surprised to learn that verbally expressing their feelings (saying “I’m delighted we’re moving closer together on price”); or “I’m disappointed that you’re not able to extend the contract length”) was powerful. In fact, verbal statements (as distinct from physical demonstrations) of your own emotions are powerful tools. They are impossible to refute, and can help establish a co-operative climate. Skilled negotiators among the original cohort did it over 50 per cent more than the average person, and today 60 per cent of successful people say they do it. Interestingly, though, when given the chance to do so in a test scenario, not many more than 20 per cent of the recent sample in fact did so.

Clearly, as so often in life, there’s ground to cover between knowing what works, and making it work in practice.

By David Freedman, Associate Director at Huthwaite International