Everything is a Negotiation

Do you consider yourself a negotiator? Believe it or not, you are. Even if you’re not negotiating the release of hostages. Or negotiating the sale of a product, or the purchase of a service. You’re still negotiating every single day.

At work and at home, you’re involved in many negotiations every day. Sometimes those are small negotiations, like who is going to do the dishes after dinner. Sometimes those are bigger negotiations, like convincing your boss to try your solution. And sometimes those are really big negotiations, like asking for a raise.

It’s all negotiation in the end. And at its core, negotiation is all about persuasion. That is, presenting your ideas in a way that moves your counterpart to agree with you.

This terrifies most people, even though it’s something we all do every day. We don’t want to offend people, or cause conflict. We don’t want to play “office politics.” We want to compromise, or approach situations from a consensus basis. Unfortunately, this is a recipe for disaster. We can’t control how other people feel. We can only control our own actions.

We see negotiating as aggressive and confrontational, when the reality is, good negotiation skills help us communicate what we want, and move others toward a positive outcome for everyone.

Every time you want to sway someone to your side on something, you are in a negotiation scenario. You can’t escape negotiations, but you can improve your negotiating skills so you’re more likely to get what you want and make others happy to agree with you.

While negotiation is a part of every aspect of our lives, this article is going to help you improve your negotiation skills in the workplace. There you might be trying to persuade your boss to approve a project, or convince your team to run with your idea. No matter. It’s all negotiation. And better negotiation skills on your part lead to better outcomes for everyone.

First, Do Your Homework

The first step to a successful negotiation is understanding who you’re dealing with—who your counterpart is.

I’m not just talking about pulling up their name in a Google search, or looking at their profile on the company intranet. I’m talking about going much deeper than this.

  • What does your counterpart want?
  • What does she need?
  • What is her background?
  • What motivates her?
  • What pressure is she under?
  • What other options does she have?

The biggest mistake you can make when you enter a negotiation is to assume your counterpart feels and thinks like you. There is no shortcut to doing your homework. You must take the time to learn as much information as you can before you start presenting your ideas or making requests. This may mean that the negotiation takes place over several conversations. The first conversation or two is simply information-gathering on your part.

Information is the surest path to empathy

In my article on dealing with an irrational boss, I shared that many people I speak with about our Communifire intranet software ask me how to convince their boss to approve the purchase. Much of that article revolved around empathy—listening so you could get to the core of what your boss really wants and needs.

If you do your homework, you’ll be way ahead of the empathy game. You’ll be in a prime position to show your negotiation counterpart (your boss, in this example) that what you’re presenting will actually benefit him.

Adjust the questions to get to the emotional core of what your counterpart is after. In the case of getting your boss to approve a purchase, what makes him look good?

  • How does your boss make decisions?
  • How does this purchase solve his challenges?
  • If he’s subject to a committee, do you know for sure that his challenges are the same as the committee’s?
  • What are the committee’s goals?
  • What are the goals of your boss’s department or organization?
  • How can you demonstrate that it solves your boss’s challenges?
  • How is your boss and your team evaluated at quarter end, or year end?
  • What is your boss’s schedule like? (This question will help you determine the best time to approach him.)

Bring in the data

Part of your information-gathering process should be centered around data. Backing up your points with the right data is a good idea for two reasons:

  1. The data itself tells your counterpart a story. It speaks for itself—and data comes across to us as unbiased. (Even if we know better. All data is biased in some way—we know this—but still, the human brain interprets numbers as impartial.)
  2. Bringing data to the conversation tells your counterpart that you’ve come prepared. You’re not just speaking off-the-cuff and from your emotions—you care about the topic at hand, and you’ve done your research.

Concentrate on finding data that clarifies the problem and shows the benefit of your proposed solution to the problem. For example, how purchasing this software fits into this quarter’s budget, how many man-hours it will take to implement it, how exactly it will benefit the team, and how it will save budget starting the very next quarter.

Most importantly, look for data that shows you understand your counterpart’s individual goals, the goals of the organization, and that you are invested in helping them achieve those goals.

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Motivate the Elephant: Map Out Both the Problem and the Solution

If you’ve ever ridden a horse, you know how much trust is involved. If you haven’t, you can probably imagine. The horse is bigger than you. A lot bigger. You use the reins to tell it where to go—but if that horse has another direction in mind, well, you’re just along for the ride. The only control you have over that horse is the control it lets you have.

Now imagine riding an elephant. That problem is much bigger, don’t you think?

Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, theorizes that our irrational, emotional side is like an elephant. Our rational, logical side is like the elephant’s rider. The rider may appear to be in control, perched atop that big elephant—but we all know that the rider’s control is limited. The rider is miniscule in comparison to the elephant. If that elephant wants to go in a different direction from where the rider is nudging it, there’s little the rider can do to stop it.

This doesn’t mean that your counterpart’s emotional side—the elephant, in this case—is a large hurdle for you to overcome. It means that if you can acknowledge the elephant’s power and work with it, you can all get to where you need to go.

You need to motivate the elephant. Not just try to control it—or worse, ignore it altogether. Once you have a solid understanding of your counterpart and where they’re coming from, it’s time to dig into the emotional core of the issue.

When you appeal to the emotions, you appeal to the person.

Your counterpart’s emotions determine their perspective—and until he knows you understand his perspective, anything you say will go in one ear and out the other. You are the least important person in a negotiation. Your boss doesn’t care how that software will make your life easier. He doesn’t care how that proposal will save time for your team. He doesn’t care that your colleague in another department earns twice as much as you do, but you’ve made twice as much money for the company. Your counterpart doesn’t care about you. Not, at least, in comparison to how much he cares about himself. That’s simply human nature.

What does your counterpart deeply care about?

What keeps your counterpart up at night? What gets him pumped up? What worries him? What’s stirring up your counterpart’s emotions?

When you understand his emotional core, you can present the problem and solution in ways that resonate with him. He can begin to understand your point of view because you’ve painted a picture he can see.

Every idea, solution or vision has two sides that make up the context:

  1. The problem
  2. The solution

Whether you’re negotiating to get a software solution you need, asking for a raise, or presenting a creative idea—those two things comprise the context. And for your counterpart to understand the context, you have to relate those two things to something he cares about.

Present the problem and the solution in an emotionally engaging way

Let’s go back to the scenario where you’re trying to convince your boss to approve the purchase of software that you know would make your work-life so much easier. Once you’ve figured out your boss’s emotional drivers, use those to put the problem and solution into frame for him.

Say your boss is stressed about meeting his quarterly goals. Your organization fell short on meeting the project completion targets last quarter, and your director had some tough words for your boss. Your boss doesn’t want to feel that humiliation again this quarter … and he’s beginning to worry that if your organization doesn’t meet their goals this quarter, his job may be on the line.

Knowing this, you might present your problem and solution this way:

Problem: One of the reasons the team fell short of our project completion targets last quarter is there were major communication mishaps. Emails went missing and there was no one central system for keeping track of the tasks related to each project. This meant that some tasks were being duplicated while others fell through the cracks. This resulted in projects not getting done—and your boss having to report to the director that your organization missed the target for the quarter.

Solution: This intranet software will help your team manage projects to completion, so your boss can report to the director that the project completion target was hit. It will streamline and centralize both communications and task management—eliminating the problems your team encountered last quarter.

Put the problem and solution into a context your boss cares about.

Michael Hyatt shares this story on his blog. When Hyatt was a COO, one of his VPs wanted to hire two new graphic designers. Instead of leading with his request, the VP told Hyatt that he figured a way to save the company $100,000 a year. Because additional profit was a big concern for Hyatt at the time, this piqued his interest.

The VP explained that the company was spending $200,000 a year outsourcing certain tasks to graphic designers. (The problem in emotional context.) He went on to explain that bringing two graphic designers in-house would cut that cost in half. (The solution in emotional context.) Hyatt says, “He made it a ‘no-brainer’ because he showed me how his proposal met my needs.

Give the Rider a Detailed Map: Script Your Critical Moves

Give the rider (your rational mind) the best chance of directing that elephant where it needs to go: Make a detailed plan for the conversation.

Write a strategic script.

In Never Split the Difference, author Chris Voss suggests you write out two things:

  1. The specific goal that represents your best-case scenario. Not your bottom line—your best case. He suggests that you think through your worst-case scenario, but that you write down the best case.
  2. The possible counterarguments your counterpart could come up with. Voss calls this an “accusation audit.” List every little thing your counterpart could say against you and what you’re presenting.

The purpose of writing out your best-case scenario is that it will help you not to settle for a default solution or compromise. Plus, you never know—with more information from your counterpart, you might discover that there’s an even better best-case scenario possible.

The purpose of an accusation audit is twofold. First, it helps you come up with answers to challenges in advance. Second, it disarms your counterpart. What they say to you can’t hurt you if you’ve already addressed the issue in your own mind.

Before you approach someone to negotiate for what you need, make a plan. Get out a pen and paper and write out your goals and how you will answer all the possible objections.

Having trouble putting yourself in your their shoes? Well, this could be a sign that you don’t have enough information yet. You might need to spend more time researching and getting to the emotional core of your counterpart’s position.

But if you’re sure you’ve done your due diligence, and you’re still not sure what the objections could be, use the 5 Ws and an H. Ask yourself:

  1. Who
  2. What
  3. Where
  4. When
  5. Why
  6. How

This will help get your brain in gear and think of the possible objections to what you’re presenting.

Shut Up and Listen with the Intent to Learn

Even if you come to the negotiation with an understanding of your counterpart, their emotions and their potential objections, you’re not done learning yet. In fact, to be a successful negotiator of all things—from your kids’ bedtime to your next promotion at work—you should never be done learning.

Prepare for your conversation, but stay open to listening to what your counterpart has to say.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of using the time while our counterparts are talking to think about the next thing we want to say. In other words, we don’t listen to what they’re saying—because we’re thinking about our next point.

It takes conscious effort to change this natural human behavior.

Do these three things to become a better listener—and as a result, a better negotiator:

1. Talk as little as possible

Presenting your idea, your point of view or your request doesn’t actually mean you should give a presentation. To successfully negotiate for what you want, talk less so you can listen more.

If you’re seeking to impress, you’re going to lose the negotiation every time. If you’re seeking to understand—discover your counterpart’s concerns, position and goals—you’ll be more prepared to tailor your response to her perspective.

The more you listen, the more you learn—and the more persuasive you’ll be when you do talk. Consider this a quality over quantity issue. Talk less, but say more.

Use the techniques from my article on dealing with an irrational boss to make sure, when you do talk, you’re saying things that move the conversation forward in a positive manner.

  • Mirror: Repeat back the last few words your counterpart said.
  • Label: Restate what you just heard, using a phrase like “It sounds like…” in front of the statement.

And never interrupt. If you have a question, write it down and address it when your counterpart is done speaking.

2. Ask open-ended questions

“Yes/no” questions won’t move the conversation forward. But open-ended questions will—and they’ll give your counterpart more opportunities to talk … which gives you more information to work with.

It’s fine to come to the conversation with a set of questions you would like answers to—but don’t over prepare. If you’re paying attention to what your counterpart says, you’ll discover new questions to ask within the context of the conversation.

Your questions should help you uncover the “why” behind what your counterpart is saying—but avoid directly asking “why.” This question more often than not puts your counterpart on the defensive. “How” or “what” are safer words to start a question with.

Or, another good question-asking statement to remember is this one:

“I’m not sure what you mean by ___. Will you tell me more about that?”

This is not only a surefire way to get more information, but it will also make your counterpart feel like you’ve been paying attention.

3. Test your assumptions

Finally, test all your assumptions—the ones you brought to the negotiation, and the ones that emerged during the conversation.

For example, say your boss denied your request to purchase the software you really need. You might assume he said no because there’s no room in the budget for it. To test this assumption, you might ask, “Is there room in the budget for project management software this quarter?”

His answer will tell you a lot.

If he says no, you can start to probe for more information about the budget, how it’s allocated, and when there might be room for your software purchase.

“Ok. It seems like we don’t have the budget this quarter. What can we do to make it next quarter?” (let him talk.)

If he says yes, you can ask questions to help you discover why he doesn’t want you to buy this specific software.

“It sounds like we have the budget, but the software doesn’t fit in our plans.” (let him talk)

Test your assumptions and ensure that you fully understand the situation and your counterpart’s perspective. This will put you in the right position to pose a solution or outcome that meets both your needs.

Leave ‘Em Like Oprah

As Chris Voss said, “The last impression is the lasting one.” The emotional note you leave the negotiation on is the one that your counterpart will remember.

Voss recounts a story told by Cindy Mori, Oprah Winfrey’s booking producer. She said that a cardinal rule of the Oprah show was to make sure every guest left feeling happy, valued and respected. End the conversation on a positive note and you’ll sustain better long-term relationships.

Negotiation of any kind can bring on the stress—and stress can bring on heated emotions. The worst thing you can do is let fear or anger take over. What do you do when someone is yelling at you? You shut down. You stop listening. Keep yourself calm and do your best to calm your counterpart as well.

When things get heated, speak in a composed, even tone of voice to encourage your counterpart to mirror you. Voss calls this the late-night DJ voice. And remember these two statements, which are powerful ways to bring attention to your counterpart’s overemotional response while encouraging them to calm down:

“I can’t hear you when you’re yelling.”

“I can’t hear you when you’re interrupting me.”

These techniques will help you perform better under the pressure of negotiation situations. More importantly, they will guide the conversation to a positive ending.

Learn everything you can about your counterpart and the emotional core of the situation; script your critical moves; listen to gather as much information during the conversation as possible; and leave the negotiation on a high note. This is the recipe for a successful negotiation—and earning respect for the long run.

In an upcoming post, we’ll go deeper into negotiations, with scripts and scenarios you can use. Thanks for reading and stay tuned.

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Written by

Tim Eisenhauer is a co-founder of Axero Solutions, a leading intranet software vendor. He's also a bestselling author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Mastering Employee Engagement. Tim’s been featured in Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur, CNBC, Today, and other leading publications.


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