Among the skills recruiters look for in new employees, the top four are:

  1. Can you work on a team?
  2. Do you understand your business’ finances?
  3. Can you express yourself verbally and in written form?
  4. Can you negotiate and resolve conflict on behalf of yourself and others on your team?

It’s this final must-have workplace skill that could use some polishing for all of us, new and experienced employees alike. It might help to begin thinking of negotiation as defined this way: “Any decision that you can’t come to by yourself. It requires the cooperation of another person or persons.”

If you buy that definition, how much of your day do you spend negotiating? It’s a bigger chunk than you probably realize. Research tells us that about 70 percent of a working professional’s day is spent negotiating. We are constantly engaged with other people trying to get them to do things in a certain way—our way.

However, just hoping for a favorable outcome isn’t good enough. If you don’t have a process in place, you will leave value on the negotiation table—and become a victim of other people’s processes.

Part of that process starts with relationship-building. Even if you’re just addressing RFPs or negotiating over the Internet, remember that there is a human being on the other side. Spend time at the beginning of each negotiation getting to know each other. Ask questions to humanize that other person—and keep you from vilifying him or her as an enemy.

Once you begin that relationship, here are four methods for generating a successful negotiation.

1. Setting the Negotiation Table

To make a deal that’s good for both parties, sit side by side, not face to face. When you sit across a table from the other person, that physical barrier can become a mental one. Next, go through these three stages:

Find out interests. The first stage of any negotiation, before you start talking about money, should be about deeply understanding each other’s interests. Most people dig in and negotiate from their positions, which can lead to gridlock. “Interspace bargaining”—a phrase coined by Harvard University Law School’s Program on Negotiation—is getting underneath people’s positions to find out their interests.

The purpose of a negotiation is to get your interests met. Think about the things that you care about, your must-haves, then prioritize those for yourself and your company. Then put yourself in the other party’s shoes and do the same thing.

Ask questions like, “Help me understand why that’s a good idea. Tell me more about why you refuse this option.” If someone is not willing to tell you why your idea won’t work, phrase it as “Why not?” or “What would be wrong with that?”

Prepare options. In the second stage, figure out options and possible ways of getting your interests met. Carve out a time when both parties suspend agreement—no arguing is allowed—and just throw out ideas. Even if someone presents what seems to be the dumbest idea you’ve ever heard, respond with, “That’s an option, and we will consider it.” The moment you start telling people that an idea won’t work, their idea is not only killed, but they will stop contributing. And the reverse is true: Even if it’s the best idea you’ve ever heard, don’t stop the brainstorming process.

The principle is “First create, then debate.” It’s a smart way of getting to elegant solutions.

Set out your data. The next stage of the negotiation is to present facts and figures that support you and back up your position. These standards help you persuade others and keep you from having to argue over simple facts. Don’t come to the table without the data to defend your idea or program.

2. Negotiating With Bullies

Maybe your response to such a standardized negotiation process is, “But you don’t know what it’s like to negotiate with this son of a gun.” It’s true; you do have to use different methods with people who are upset and angry or who act like bullies in a negotiation.

Listening actively moves things along in a negotiation. Capture what someone is telling you and say it back to them.

The first thing to do with these people is to stop negotiating. Deal with people problems using people techniques before you deal with the actual problem on its merits. Just being nice to bullies, hoping they will stop misbehaving, won’t work. Plus, you’ll end up giving away the farm, negotiation-wise, as well as training them to do the same thing next time.

When someone begins behaving badly in a negotiation, take a time out and then use these techniques:

Match their intensity, though not their words. In a forceful way, let people know they have been heard. People act badly when they think you aren’t hearing them. Say things like, “Oh my gosh. We really let you down, didn’t we?” If the anger is genuine, your mirrored intensity will let the air go out of their argument.

Give them a bucket. Some people just need to tell you the whole, awful story, spilling out all the details of what they’re angry about and why. Your role is to make “I’m listening” noises, such as “Yes, I see” and “Ah, I hear you.” Don’t interrupt—let them tell you their story from the beginning.

Listen actively. Listening actively moves things along in a negotiation. Capture what someone is telling you and say it back to them.

Take them back to options. People are attracted to the ideas they create themselves. Ask questions like, “If this doesn’t work for you, what does?” Gleaning those kinds of options will give you power.

If none of these works for defusing the person, he or she is not behaving reasonably. For those kinds of people, just name their game; say, “It feels like you’re using anger to get what you want. Neither of us wants that.” Call out the person and force them to stop before you move on.

3. Navigating Through a Difficult Conversation

After you resolve the people problem of that formerly angry negotiator, you’ll still likely have hard work to do. To navigate through a difficult conversation, try the following four-sentence model created by Doug Stone, a lecturer at Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation:

  1. Assume that what they’re saying isn’t intentional: “I don’t know if you’re aware of this …”
  2. Describe the data: “Here’s what I see …”
  3. Explain the impact: “My concern is that …”
  4. Leave the floor open for the other person: “What do you think?”

Here’s a real-life scenario to illustrate this method: In a difference in opinion over antibiotics, a doctor yells at a nurse in front of a patient. The head of nursing addressed the problem by saying: “Dr. Smith, I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but here’s what I saw. I overheard a conversation you had with Susan about antibiotics. That conversation happened in front of a patient. My concern is that now the patient is aware that we have differences and might think we don’t know what we’re talking about. What do you think?”

Most likely the doctor will apologize and come up with a better solution for addressing the problem in the future. That’s because those four sentences gave him a face-saving way to do so.

4. Getting People to Yes

Once the negotiation is back on track, how do you get the other party to say yes to what you’re offering? Consider the key principles of influence developed by Robert Cialdini, professor emeritus of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University. Of his six principles, here are four that specifically relate to negotiation:

Reciprocity. This is the principle of give and take, and “I’ll scratch your back, if you’ll scratch mine.” Here’s an example: Your desk is piled with work, but all of a sudden you get a call from your colleague Larry. He has to have some data right away for a presentation. Because he’s your friend, you take a couple of hours and help him out, even formatting the information he needs as a graph. The next day after the presentation, he calls to say thanks. Many of us would reply, “No problem, that’s just part of the job,” but that answer fumbles away reciprocity.

Instead, say, “You’re welcome. I know if the situation were reversed, you’d do the same for me.” That engages reciprocity and leads Larry to feel obliged to help you out in the future.

Scarcity. Products are more desirable when their availability is limited or when we might lose the opportunity to get them on the best terms. How can you make what you have to offer scarce? If you put a time limit (“this is only good for a certain number of days) or a finite number (“we have only four left”) on a deal, people will perceive it to be more valuable. They will think, “I must need to buy it; not everybody will get this deal.”

Commitment and consistency. People are driven to be consistent, and once they have committed to something, they’re more likely to live up to it. When you say something out loud or write something down, you’re even more committed. All along the way of a negotiation ask questions like, “Does this work for you?” Those little yeses will help you get the motivation to continue to the harder parts of the negotiation.

Likeability. You’ve heard that the meanest son of a gun gets the best deal, but that’s not true. We are much more willing to give concessions to people we like. Help people like you by showing some transparency about who you are.

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Author Information

Susan Williams, PhD

Williams is professor of management at Belmont University’s Jack C. Massey Graduate School of Business, and she also serves Belmont’s Center for Executive Education as a curriculum designer and faculty member. Her teaching interests include ethical decision making, continuous improvement and strategic thinking. More Articles by This Author »