How To Frame Negotiations So You Won't Dread Them

A negotiation isn't an argument, but a back-and-forth between people. Here's how to think differently about your approach to the table.

No matter how much you hate it, negotiation is an unavoidable part of life.

A client may want a job done, and you have to determine the scope of work and the price. A colleague may need a favor, and you need to determine what you are willing to do and whether you need anything in exchange. A customer may be dissatisfied with an experience, and you have to determine what you can do to make it right.

When you think about negotiations, what image do you have?

If you are like most people, you think about two people (or perhaps two groups) sitting across the table from each other. Each side has an ideal outcome in mind, and the aim is for each side to maximize what it gets.

The potential problem with this image is that when you sit across the table from someone else, it is natural to start thinking about the outcome you are negotiating as if it is an object on the table between you. The closer that object is to you, the better. That means that the closer that agreement is to you, the further it is from your opponent. You win when they lose and vice versa.

The problems with how most people view negotiation

Most negotiations need not be competitive. Instead, you have walked into the negotiation with a set of goals. You may want to do an initial bit of work for a new client. You may want to get paid fairly for that work. You may want to open up opportunities for new collaboration.

Your negotiation partner also has goals—perhaps to solve a nagging problem that cannot be done in house, to pay a fair price for that work, and even to find an opportunity for a new collaboration.

Most negotiations are part of an ongoing relationship. If both of you treat that negotiation as a game in which for each point one side wins and the other loses, then you leave that negotiation with the joy of your victories and the sting of the defeats.

That means that you will enter the next negotiation wanting to correct the past wrongs and to build on past successes. That can make later negotiations more intense as each side tries to avoid the mistakes of the past.

The alternative way to frame your negotiation

Rather than sitting across the table from each other, imagine a conversation between two partners walking forward into the future together. Side-by-side, you survey what the future may hold and talk about what you need and what you are willing to do.

This way of negotiating involves a conversation between equals. The agreement you reach sets the direction you walk in the future. It does not need to be viewed as a win or a loss for either side. If both sides achieve their goals, then the agreement was a success.

One value of the conversation approach, is that it changes your beliefs about how the negotiation should go. When you treat the negotiation as competitive, then it is to your advantage to hide information. The less your opponent knows, the fewer opportunities they have to exploit what they find for their benefit.

But, when you withhold information, you also make it difficult to find cases in which both of you actually have the same goal. It is a shame to miss these win-win situations, just because you are trying to eke out a slightly better agreement overall.

Second, the conversational approach lends itself to developing a relationship with your negotiation partner. Obviously, to disclose information about what you want in a negotiation requires trust that your partner will tell the truth and will work to create an agreement that is in everyone’s best interests. And, you can end up reaching a bad agreement with a negotiation partner who does not play fairly.

In the long-run, though, the conversational approach makes it easier to negotiate in the future rather than harder. Over time, you can simply tell your partner what you want and get the same in return. This strategy saves time and creates shared goals in which the parties are working in their mutual interest.

So, the next time that you have to negotiation, consider looking out together to the future rather than across the table at an opponent.

[Image: Flickr user Łukasz Lech]

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