Negotiations are dynamic affairs requiring skill, discipline, and practice. No matter your vocation or your goals, you will be more likely to achieve success if you can utilize negotiation skills to navigate the intricacies of negotiation.
The guide below will cover essential concepts and important negotiation skills that will help you get the most out of your next negotiation.
What Are Negotiation Skills?
Negotiation skills are more than just confidence, self-assertion, and an ability to read people. More crucial to success is a keen understanding of human psychology and interpersonal dynamics, as well as a willingness to analyze exactly what kind of situation you’re in and how to approach it.
Like it or not, the world runs on negotiations. They are the beating heart of conflict resolution, the last hurdle between you and whatever value proposition you hope to bring to fruition.
Whether we’re talking about business negotiators ironing out their differences to reach an agreement on the price and terms of a business deal, or an employee negotiating a starting salary with an employer, negotiation is a necessary part of life.
Since the skills you need to master the negotiation process are predicated on situational awareness, let’s start by examining what it means to negotiate with someone.
Types of Negotiation
Before you get to the negotiating table, you should have a basic framework in place. There are two basic approaches to negotiation: distributive and integrative.
Most people approach the negotiation process in one of these two ways. The more you can steer your next negotiation away from the distributive model and toward the integrative model, the better it is for your hand. Let’s examine why.
Distributive Negotiation (or Zero-Sum)
Chances are this is the type that your brain defaults to when you imagine a negotiation. It’s the negotiation style of popular culture, the one you’ve probably seen in movies: a dramatic confrontation in which one party wins and the other party loses. But while the desire to win can be quite the motivational tool, a winners-and-losers mindset can also be counterproductive.
The adversarial nature of distributive negotiation is problematic because it discounts the prospect of shared goals. By treating everything as zero-sum, distributive negotiators risk overlooking areas of agreement and bypassing creative assessments of value in favor of simplistic, one-dimensional outcomes.
It is common in distributive negotiations, for example, for parties to focus on short-term sources of value at the expense of potential long-term benefits. This leaves everyone worse off.
A much more effective negotiation approach is integrative. Instead of seeking to claim value from the other party, an integrative negotiator looks to create value with the other party. If both sides work in good faith toward the highest possible overall value, then an integrative negotiation will almost always result in a win-win.
You may be wondering: what if the other guy is secretly pursuing a distributive outcome, trying to maximize his share of the takeaway at my expense? Even then, it is still probably in your best interest to play the multidimensional game that integrative negotiation demands.
Why should that be the case? Because if you carefully analyze every potential source of value, not only clarifying what you want but also considering what they want, then by the time negotiations start, you will have a much clearer sense of what’s on the line and be better prepared to know which cards to play.
Top Skills for Negotiators
Understanding the distributive and integrative approaches to value is half the battle, but every negotiation brings its own unique challenges. Acquire the following negotiation skills to ensure you give yourself the best chance to achieve your desired outcome in your next negotiation.
Strategic and Analytical Skills
The most important work comes well before negotiations start. Successful negotiation strategies take time, energy, and meticulous planning to prepare and execute. These are high-stake opportunities to decide matters of consequence, and they do not come along every day. When they do, we owe it to the process to do our homework. Resist the temptation to wing it.
And let’s be honest: there’s a lot to comb through when preparing for an integrative negotiation. Most crucially, you need to thoroughly understand your goals. That means clearly articulating for yourself what you want, breaking down what you want into a hierarchy of values, and deciding which values you are and are not willing to compromise on.
But such work is meaningless unless you can also anticipate and use analytical skills to analyze what the other party wants, and then strategize accordingly. It is unlikely, after all, that you and the other party will value everything equally. You can only create value by viewing the negotiation from all sides and identifying possible points of convergence and divergence.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at three things you should analyze while preparing your strategy.
High-Value and Low-Value Goals
One of the most powerful negotiation tactics involves trading something of low value that you believe your counterpart values highly. If you take the time to compare your highest-value and lowest-value goals with your best estimates of the other party’s high- and low-ticket items, then you will be prepared to pounce on these trades when the moment is right.
Positions vs Interests
The best negotiation strategies are those that can identify not only each party’s position but also each party’s interests. As David Wachtel observes, whereas a position is what someone wants, an interest is why someone wants a specific thing.
By dissecting your interests relative to the other party’s interests, you will be able to argue for and against various positions as they arise in the course of the negotiation.
Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA)
The last, and probably best, piece of preparation you can do is to figure out and strengthen your BATNA, or best alternative to a negotiated agreement. Introduced by William Ury and Bruce Patton in their book Getting to Yes, the concept of a BATNA gives each negotiator a lifeline if deliberations take a turn for the worse.
Put simply, your BATNA represents the limit below which you should not accept an offer because you know something better awaits you elsewhere. Your BATNA and the other party’s BATNA are valuable pieces of information to have at your disposal. Together they establish the boundaries of negotiation, the range of outcomes in which an agreement remains feasible.
Your strategy should be adaptive to the dynamic process of the negotiation itself. Once the meeting is underway, other skills will have to take over, like the ability to cultivate relationships with people and understand human behavior.
Experts agree that analysis doesn’t count for much unless you can build rapport with the person sitting across from you. Instead of diving right into negotiations, spend some time making conversation with your counterpart. A strong personal connection will foster trust and goodwill when it comes time to do business.
Always be yourself. You can make concessions to someone else’s style or perspective without being insincere or fake. Empathy goes a long way.
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Related to people skills is the ability to effectively communicate. This includes flashy skills like persuasion and self-expression, but the subtler forms of communication are probably even more important.
What you’re doing when you’re not actively arguing your case will make all the difference. Pay attention to these three often neglected aspects of strong communication.
You’ve probably heard the truism that most communication is nonverbal. Well, the evidence seems to confirm it. The results of one seminal study suggest that body language is more expressive than either words or tone of voice.
Being attentive to bodily cues and learning to control your own body language will set you up for success.
Listening skills are probably the most commonly cited category of negotiation skills. And it is no mystery why. During a negotiation, you will be on the receiving end of a ton of information, and you will be tempted to expend precious cognitive resources planning your next response.
But if you and your counterpart are talking past each other, the negotiation is probably going poorly. Slow down, listen carefully, and demonstrate good listening habits by summarizing what your counterpart has just said before beginning your response.
Active listening does not mean losing sight of your own interests. On the contrary, you can pursue your high-value goals more effectively by constructing thoughtful questions out of the fruits of your listening. You might follow up on something that aligns with your desired outcome or try to create value by raising a question that incorporates something from your preparation.
Conclusion: Negotiate Your Way to a Win-Win
Negotiation skills come in many forms. Life in the modern world requires them. Whether you’re a salesperson, a real estate agent, a project manager, or an employee hoping for a raise, you would do well to improve your negotiation skills.
Successful negotiators are society’s movers and shakers. Develop and practice the skills in this guide, and you will be well on your way to joining their ranks.
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