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Embrace your inner negotiator


By Beth Holmes

Regardless of one’s job title, being a good negotiator is, at a minimum, a differentiating factor that can help with career advancement. For certain positions, it’s the key to survival. Many people struggle to find the right mix of incentive, pressure, diplomacy and charisma to pull off a negotiation.

So whether you are embarking on contract talks, internal budget negotiations, or asking for a salary increase, it’s crucial that you have the skills to get the best deal. Negotiating for career advancement may be the hardest challenge of all.

The best negotiators have good interpersonal skills, are adept at attaining information, are good at planning, and can move from hard, win-lose–type bargaining to a collaborative negotiation in which the parties seek a solution that addresses needs on both sides of the table, says Mitchell Langbert, associate professor at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York in New York City.

Understand that the balance of power is one of the most important factors in any negotiation.

“Knowledge is power,” says Graham Botwright, partner and head of consulting at negotiation consultancy The Gap Partnership, “[and] by carefully questioning the other party, you will be able to derive information about their timings, their intent and their pricing, which will help you to increase your perceived level of power.”

“Most people tend to be cooperative and do not consider that opponents can be hard bargainers,” adds Langbert. “Only about a quarter of the US population is comprised of people who are instinctively hard bargainers, while three-quarters are instinctively soft or cooperative bargainers. Soft bargainers tend to think everyone is like them, so hard bargainers can manipulate them. Soft bargainers need to develop hard-bargaining skills in order to resist manipulation.”

Beware cultural differences and blanket assumptions

There’s no question that different cultures have distinct negotiating styles. Many people think, for instance, that Americans are more likely to drive a hard bargain. But within cultures there are regional differences as well as huge variances between individuals, Langbert says. “You’re never dealing with the mean,” he says.

Still it pays to do your research if you are dealing with an unfamiliar culture. It may make sense to get outside help to prepare for what the negotiating norms might be.

Those who know they’re faced with a different approach to negotiating can hope one style will prevail or opt for a third style both parties agree would be fair.

Career brinksmanship?

People tend to feel more trepidation when negotiating about their career, such as a starting salary or pay raise, Langbert says. Some of that anxiety stems from the fact that the person on the other side of the table in career negotiations is someone with whom you have an ongoing relationship and shared goals. “You’re on the same team. You can’t use the same tactics as with someone you’re buying a car from.”

Such conversations call for less blunt tactics, he says, and some good timing, such as just after a positive performance evaluation.

Plan carefully

Preparation for any negotiation is critical to success. “Negotiations need to be planned in advance. If you are negotiating about salary, it is imperative to know what the salary ranges for the job are across the industry. You need to do your homework,” says Langbert.

Botwright calls planning the single most important factor for any negotiation, but he says few people do enough planning, and what they do is often inadequate and doesn’t add value.  “You should spend 90% of your time planning your strategy and its likely permutations, and only 10% of your time negotiating the specific contents of a deal,” he said.

To define your strategy, you will need to decide in advance whether the negotiation is cooperative or competitive. Your strategy will then influence your approach: Do you want to take, share or give value?

Set your breaking point in advance

Part of the planning process, but a distinct point on its own, is to set your breaking point in the cold light of day, away from the pressure of the negotiation. This means, explains Botwright, being clear when you are going to walk away from a deal. But don’t fall into the trap of aiming only at your own breaking point.

“One of the most common mistakes is to go to target the breaking point,” he adds. “You need to get inside the other party’s head – work out what their breaking point is. Landing as close to their breaking point as possible at the end of the deal should be your primary objective.”

Langbert refers to this as the threat point. “Negotiation depends on practising the balance between distributive and collaborative tactics. A good negotiator knows how to bluff and how to influence the opponent’s threat points, but he or she also knows how to transition from hard to collaborative, when to share information, and when to view negotiation as a problem-solving exercise rather than a competitive one.”

Who’s winning?

Your ego can also affect the perceived balance of power. By exercising humility and restraining your ego, you can swing the power stakes into your favour by making the other party feel like they are winning. “Successful negotiation is the art of letting them have your way,” says Botwright.

A common mistake, continues Langbert, is to overlook the benefits of collaboration, which he explains as being “the problem-solving approach whereby negotiators expand the pie rather than divide it. Good collaborative bargainers are good at distributive or hard bargaining, as well as collaboration. Hard bargainers too often assume that they need to squeeze every bit of surplus out of the soft bargainer, while soft bargainers too often assume that getting along is more important than the outcome of the negotiation. Both assumptions are faulty. A good negotiator considers where to draw the line between hard or distributive and collaborative negotiation.”

Get creative

“Everyone can be more creative, even in the world of finance,” says Botwright. “The one thing that constrains us is precedent.”

For example, in price-related negotiations, price is an important negotiating point, but it is not the only one. Thinking beyond the norm will unearth new areas of value.

“Don’t think ‘no’. Think: ‘How can I help them to help me?’ ” Botwright concludes.

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