Negotiating skills can take you far in life and in the C-suite.
Do you need to ask your boss for more staff or a bigger budget? Do you need to convince a colleague to join forces on a new project? Do you need to nail down a price with a supplier on a new learning management system? Regardless of whether you're aware of it, you're negotiating all the time. And once you reach the C-suite, it pays to know how to get two parties to agree to a solution, especially if they have competing incentives and goals.
Here are five strategies that will help you get what you need—and what you want.
Know your facts
According to Mike Schultz, president of RAIN Group, the person who understands the issues the best will be the strongest negotiator. This starts with knowing all the facts. For example, if you're shopping for a new social learning platform, you need to know what functions you plan to use—not just what the supplier can offer. Or, if you're negotiating a bigger annual budget, you should know what other companies in your industry spend on training and development per employee, per year.
"Lack of knowledge introduces doubt on both sides of the negotiation," says Schultz. So, any data you can bring to the table will put you in a stronger position.
In practical terms, Jeff Weiss notes in the HBR Guide to Negotiating that you should put at least as much time into getting ready as you think the negotiation will take. For example, if you've scheduled a two-hour conversation, then spend at least two hours preparing.
"And the more complex the issues at hand, the more you need to prepare—at least double or triple the length of time you'll spend at the table," advises Weiss.
See their side
Having all the pertinent facts and figures can't be your only stratagem. Know your leverage points, too. These are factors such as needs versus wants, financial budgets, time constraints, and competitive offerings. You need to understand not only your leverage points but also the other party's leverage points and any options that may fall in the middle.
Be sure to know the answers to a few key questions:
- What's your goal? What's the other party's goal?
- What are your needs? What are the other party's needs?
- What are some potential concessions on either side?
- What pressures do you have to make a deal? What pressures does the other party have?
- What is your bottom line? What is the other party's bottom line?
Armed with your answers, you will be able to come up with an array of potential outcomes to the negotiation. Weiss advises executives to write down multiple good, bad, and crazy ideas.
"Allow yourself to come up with solutions that seem unrealistic—often from those impossible options, you'll see a path toward a more viable one," he writes. "Each solution you come up with may not address every need you and your counterpart have, but each should address at least a subset for both parties."
Practice your play
Like anything else, the more you negotiate, the better you're going to be at it. If you don't have a lot of experience in formal negotiations, you can use practice and role play to build your expertise and confidence—something L&D pros know how to do very well. Practicing also will prepare you to navigate any obstacles your counterpart lays before you.
Prepare hypothetical scenarios and contingency plans. What if your boss scoffs at your first request for a budget increase or additional staff? What if a supplier won't budge on a price or delivery date? Having your responses ready in advance will help you mitigate any element of surprise and avoid strategic missteps.
Michael Wheeler is a professor of management practice at the Harvard Business School, where he teaches negotiation. In The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World, he warns that not all negotiations can be scripted. "Your goals may change during the course of negotiation, a little or a lot. Unexpected opportunities and obstacles may pop up. Your across-the-table counterpart may be more or less cooperative than you expected," he writes. Granted, you can't practice for everything, but you can prepare how you will react to common objections and challenges.
Make the first move—or not
There are two schools of thought in how to take a control at the negotiation table. Some experts contend that it is more strategic to let the other person talk first. The thinking is that you let the individual show all his cards so you know what you have to work with.
However, other studies suggest that taking a proactive approach will increase your odds of coming out ahead. Think of it like dealer's choice. Making the first move demonstrates dominance and enables the initiating party to take charge of the process and shape the negotiation.
A big part of this advantage lies in what is called the anchoring effect. Anchoring is a cognitive bias that describes the common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered—or the "anchor"—when making decisions. Individuals then use that initial information to make subsequent judgments. More importantly, you play the ensuing game with cards you selected.
If you decide to make the first move, research from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management strongly advises you to keep a few points in mind. For starters, hardly anyone accepts the first offer, so be sure you have room for maneuvering. Next, don't make an outrageous opening offer.
"Sometimes, negotiators think that they can establish dominance by making an extreme offer," says Leigh Thompson, author of The Truth About Negotiations. "However, this backfires and creates a chilling effect." She warns that the other party may lose all motivation to continue negotiating.
Smile and look positive
You don't have to smile through the entire negotiation—but you do want to maintain a positive environment. Remember: Your tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language will be under the microscope. Giving a few verbal and physical cues will show that you are seeking a win-win solution.
- Mirror the other person's body language as a subconscious way to build rapport.
- During contentious conversations, maintain eye contact and keep your chin up. Failing to do this can demonstrate a lack of confidence and conviction.
- A simple nod of the head can diffuse tension and build alignment, even if internally you disagree with what the person is saying.
- Don't fidget. Don't bounce your legs, tap your feet, or clasp your hands. You want to appear calm and confident, and any signs of being nervous or anxious are a red flag.
- Be relaxed and open. Negotiations can be intense, so assume a relaxed body position to help ease the tension.Take care not to frown or wrinkle your forehead worryingly.
Know when to walk away
It's easy for negotiations to get intense. But even if you've done your due diligence, laid out your position, and tried to compromise where you could, you may not always find common ground where both parties come out winners. When that's the case, it's time to walk away. Sometimes the best you can do is work to negotiate another day.
What's more, remember that you're likely seated across from someone you will need to have a relationship with in the future. Keep it professional; keep it cordial.
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