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How to negotiate in the workplace

How to negotiate in the workplaceWe can negotiate well in our personal lives but we don’t always  bring these key skills into the office. Good negotiating can be a powerful tool in the workplace. Here’s how you can use these skills.

I once read with dismay that the two keys to negotiating were superior information and learning to smile and say, ‘no’ until your tongue bled. The word ‘negotiation’ immediately conjures up images of disputes and standoffs. All too often we see a negotiation as an opportunity to win, to get our way, in the hope that our opponent will eventually be worn down, compromise for the sake of sanity or agree to things that don’t matter while avoiding the real issues.

In its plainest form, however, a negotiation is an interaction between parties with two or more points of view. We negotiate all the time—where to go on holiday, who takes the kids to school, whether to buy the new lounge room furniture—and, for the most part, we settle happily on a decision. Yet for some bizarre reason, when we get to the workplace many of the skills we use at home seem to fly out the window. Forging a compromise over which DVD to watch is not the same as signing up a complex industrial agreement, but the skills are not that different.

Effective negotiation is strategic and thoughtful, moving both parties away from polarised, entrenched positions towards one of common interest. At their core, great negotiations are a search for the truth with a view to the future, rather than being mired in experiences of the past. The central issue must always be: how can both parties have their interests satisfied while keeping their relationship strong with neither party feeling cheated or manipulated?

What makes effective negotiation?

First, think conversation, not debate and constructive interaction, not warfare. Successful debaters demolish their opposition; successful negotiators work with them.

Better negotiation skills come from becoming more aware of your own thinking and reasoning, being able to make your thinking and reasoning more visible to others, and, critically, respecting and inquiring into others’ thinking and reasoning.

These factors are present early in the process. To amble into negotiations without preparation is highly risky, particularly if the stakes are high. Preparation includes getting robust data (this beats opinion every time), being sure you know what is and isn’t on the table, prioritising what is important to you and what you can move on. However frequently ignored, they are the obvious steps. But the strength of your position expands if you also know how and why all those decisions have been made and how you are going to explain those matters effectively. It becomes strong if you have put your feet in the shoes of the other party and given thoughtful consideration to how things look from that vantage point.But active and effective listening is a crucial part of this process. Just getting the listening part of a negotiation right can make all the difference in the world. The price of ineffective listening is high: misunderstandings, confusion, lost information and wasted time.

Effective listening

Effective listening means taking in and understanding information from others without pre-judging the information or its provider, and making sure the conversation is genuinely two-way. Active listening requires the structured focus of your attention on the other party, suspending your own thoughts and judgements. Such attention includes noticing the other party’s behaviour and body language, and listening for feelings and sometimes stating them. It shows interest in what the other person is saying, putting the other party at ease, making them feel they are noticed and valued, and encouraging them to continue and to elaborate. The more you hear, the more information you have for resolution. Take notes to capture the themes of the discussion but also to show you are attending. Keep the essentials of the discussion in your head.

Because negotiations are about human interaction they contain masses of emotional data. You need to recognise, understand and manage this. Use your unoccupied attention capacity to listen between the lines. Ask yourself, what is the mood in the room? Is it conducive to the task? How are people feeling? Look at their faces, their body language. How focused are they on the task? Think about yourself in the same way before and during the negotiation. Your posture can convey much. Trying to mask your emotions rarely works, especially if the emotions are strong. You cannot hide anger and deep frustration. Instead share your feelings about how you feel (not critique what the other person did to make you feel that way) and try to find positive emotions that can be brought to the table. A smile helps put everyone at ease. Acknowledge and take account of the other party’s feelings.

Tread easily and slowly to the problem. You could start with something like: “We have to resolve this issue, but first I want to hear what you have to say about it.” Give the other party some slack, encourage them to take time, and treat them as you would like to be treated. Encourage elaboration of their thoughts and feelings.

The power of a question

When you are sitting in a negotiation wondering where on earth an idea or proposition came from and feel yourself ready to launch an attack, the power of a simple question can defuse the situation. “Where did that idea come from? What was your thinking? Tell me how you came to that conclusion?”

Ensure you understand what is being said. Check the key messages with the other party (Now, let me see if I have understood what you said …). Summarise or paraphrase in your own words what came across (What I think you are saying is…). As you hear ideas expressed, indicate that you understand key points.

Have your fights in negotiations if you want to. Just don’t call it good business. Stop, step back and try to see things with new eyes. Become aware of the underlying assumptions and beliefs that have influenced your attitude and reactions. This requires self-control and emotional maturity, but it frees you up to attend to what is really going on.

There is something exhilarating about showing other people the links of your reasoning. They may or may not agree with you, but at least they can see how you got there. When negotiation is working well, you can more easily accept different views and learn from them.

–Jim Grant is founding partner of Dattner Grant (http://dattnergrant.com.au)

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