When you are facing a negotiation, how do you usually describe the way you feel? Most people say “anxious.” When you think about it, anxiety is a very generic term. I suggest making a distinction between two different kinds of anxiety: nervousness and stress.
Being nervous is a natural emotion whenever we are faced with a situation that is new or in which we think we have something to gain or lose. Stress is what you feel when you are unprepared. You really can’t avoid feeling nervous; you can prepare for and avoid being stressed.
This is a valuable distinction that applies to negotiating. Many expert negotiators feel nervous when going into the part of the negotiation that involves their counterparts; I know I do. As long as I have prepared effectively, I feel no stress. This is vitally important. Being nervous heightens my attention to what is going on around me. When interacting with my counterpart, it means I can focus my attention on that individual and really listen to everything they are saying (or not saying).
Science tells us that when we feel stress, our brains are flooded with hormones that motivate us to flee, fight, or freeze. None of these behaviors are effective in negotiations. When experiencing stress, we become narrowly focused on ourselves. To reach agreement, it is essential that you shift your focus away from yourself to your counterpart. Without a thorough understanding of your counterpart’s needs, you will be unable to find all the places you may already be in agreement and ways to bridge any gaps that remain.
When Negotiating, Preparation Is the Best Antidote to Stress!
Preparation is what you do, on your own, before you have any interaction with your counterpart. I call it being negotiation-ready, and I break it down into three key activities: research, rehearse, and review. While I do lots of training around negotiation readiness, here are some key concepts:
- Research. Spend time thinking about what each party really needs from an agreement. What problems are you trying to solve? As you think about your counterpart, avoid assumptions and frame your thoughts in terms of testable hypotheses and questions.
- Rehearse. Write a list of what you want to cover when you are talking with your counterpart. If you have your thoughts in writing, you don’t have to remember them. You now have far more energy to focus on your counterpart.
- Review. Spend time immediately after any interaction with your counterpart to really think about what you just learned during the interaction. What questions did you answer, what questions remain, where is there agreement, what are the gaps?
Next time you have a negotiation, rather than label your feelings as generic anxiety, get specific! Do the preparation and go into the interaction without stress. Use your nervous energy to focus on your counterpart. You will be more effective, every time!