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Use these three reframing strategies to win at tricky negotiations

This is how to turn tough negotiations into joint-problem-solving efforts.

Use these three reframing strategies to win at tricky negotiations
[Photos: Samuel Zeller/Unsplash; Flickr user Ervins Strauhmanis]

Negotiation in the best of circumstances is a delicate balance and often nerve-wracking for all parties involved. But attempting to make deals with difficult, uncooperative parties can quickly escalate to a headache-inducing debacle.

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When it comes to dismantling the toughest bargainers, one persuasive tactic William Ury, cofounder of the Harvard Program on Negotiation, writes about in his book Getting Past No falls under the umbrella of reframing. By reframing the negotiation, you’re able to use subtle differences and variations to produce remarkable differences in attitudes and behavior.

Whether it’s stonewalling, threats, or the “add-on” where someone throws in new demands at the end of a negotiation, below are three reframing strategies that can be used in the most difficult tactics. If executed properly, the result is both parties thinking of the negotiation as a joint problem-solving effort they’re tackling as partners instead of adversaries.


Related: How to prepare for the three most common types of negotiation at work


1. Reframe to probe for hidden interests

In this reframing tactic, you want to ask the other party open-ended, problem-solving questions that encourage the uncovering of hidden interests. That way, you can determine what shared interests you may have that can help shift the other party from the opposing team to your side. For instance, if the counterparty won’t budge on a number, Ury suggests asking questions like, “Help me understand where that number comes from,” or, “What standard is that based on?” These kind of questions probe for interests beyond what they’re willingly telling you.

2. Reframe to see the problem through a new lens

When the other side is giving you a difficult time, consider asking their advice on what you should do. By doing so, you’re acknowledging the other side’s status in the negotiation and stop them from seeing you as an adversary. Consider asking questions like, “What would you do if you were in my shoes? or “What if we did this instead . . . ?” When you ask the other party what they would do if they were in your shoes, you’re changing the lens they’re using to look at the current problem.

Stanford University professor Tina Seelig told Fast Company in 2015 that when we reframe the question, we change our approach for generating ideas and solutions. Seelig suggests that instead of asking, “How should we plan a birthday party for David?” take the party part out of the equation and consider asking, “How can we make David’s day memorable?” or “How can we make David’s day special?” which helps people rethink solutions altogether.

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Related: Exactly what (not) to say when negotiating your salary


3. Reframe from “you” and “me” to “we”

No matter what kind of hardball tactics your counterparty uses, when you continually place the two of you on the same side, eventually the other side will start seeing the negotiation process as collaborative.

So if they’re using “you” and “me” during the negotiation, consider making “we” statements. For instance, if your counterparty is making threats with take-it-or-leave-it ultimatums, you can reframe the conversation by saying things like, “This isn’t working. How can we move forward?” At this point, you can suggest adding, subtracting, or changing the people sitting at the bargaining table, but remember to use “we” through it all.

When all else fails

Ury wrote in his book, “In sailing, you rarely if ever get to your destination by heading straight for it. In between you and your goal are strong winds and tides, reefs, and shoals, not to speak of storms and squalls. To get where you want to go, you need to tack–to zigzag your way toward your destination. The same is true in the world of negotiation.”

When reframing doesn’t work, consider a move Ury calls, “Go to the balcony.” When the negotiation isn’t heading to the destination along the path you intended, consider stepping away–to the balcony or wherever else–so that you’re able to distance yourself from any emotional reactions stirred up during the negotiation. In this place, you’re able to have a more objective perspective as opposed to being wrapped up at the center in the situation. It’s here that you can find zigzag paths to your destination.

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About the author

Vivian Giang is a business writer of gender conversations, leadership, entrepreneurship, workplace psychology, and whatever else she finds interesting related to work and play. You can find her on Twitter at @vivian_giang.

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