I agree with me.
I heard this remarkable phrase recently on the Radio 4 programme, “Women’s Hour”. A group of high-powered women were discussing the participants in the Women Game Changers of the Year, 2013; they were discussing potential candidates, and who they thought might win.
Each was trying to persuade the other to their own views about the candidates - why they were “right” and how the others should agree with them. They were all trying to win the other participants in the conversation over to their viewpoint – and with a conspicuous lack of success.
Never once did someone say, “The strength of your argument is such that I am now utterly convinced that you are right and I am wrong”. In fact one of the participants said, “Well I agree with you. But I also agree with me!” Both arguments were diametrically opposed but the irony of the statement seemed utterly lost.
For those of us involved in the selling of products, goods, ideas, solutions and concepts, we hope that a good pitch will have its own inevitable conclusion - a signature on the dotted line. Experience tells me that this may not always be the case.
When the selling pitch stops, the commercial negotiating realities start to hit. If we are selling complex products, with a variety of negotiating variables, it is fair to say that the negotiation truly begins at this point. Furthermore, this is when the value of the deal for both parties gets thrashed out and agreed.
Selling is the necessary process to identify the fit between what the seller is offering and the buyer is seeking. Negotiation, on the other hand, is a different and identifiable process in which the terms of the deal are agreed. In many ways the negotiation should only begin when there is a genuine commitment from the buyer and seller towards a conditional sale.
Imagine a situation when you are asking someone out for a date. There is no point in booking the restaurant if the other party has not agreed to go out with you. Once the date has been agreed then you might begin the discussion or negotiation about where to eat, what to eat, when to eat it and who picks up the tab.
The common method of gaining influence is selling and it is usually the only thing we try. If the other party can be persuaded to accept your offer it is by far the cheapest solution. The only cost is the time spent putting your argument together! Unfortunately, experience demonstrates that not only does out-and-out persuasion have a high failure rate, it also often provokes feelings of frustration and anger. “Why can’t the idiots see what I am getting at? They are being deliberately obtuse and difficult. Well, I can play hard ball too…”
We are so convinced about the validity of our persuasive argument that the only problem must be that the other side have not quite understood it. That sets up more persuasion using maybe slightly different language or a raised voice. We build more and more persuasive reasons why the other side should see it our way. The temptation is to say, “I agree with me”. The problem is that maybe they don’t.
Negotiation requires us to recognise that the selling bit is over. The conflict that is left - and which needs to be resolved - is the one about the terms of the agreement. Most commercial relationships are fundamentally based on conflict. Buyers always want a better rate, more value, and better service. Sellers may want to provide those things too but only from a commercially advantageous position.
It is amazing how many salespeople talk more than they listen. I remember my granny once saying to me, “you’ve got two ears and one mouth!” Using them in that proportion is sound advice for the negotiators. Listen more than you talk.
For many of us that is much easier to say than it is to do, and, of course, by itself it is not enough. Constructive listening requires positive questioning; use the limited amount of talking time as effectively as possible.
During your preparation for the negotiation you will of course know your own point of view on the issues to be discussed. You will know what is flexible and what is not. You will not of course know the same for the other side. During the dialogue phase of the negotiation it is your opportunity to test any estimations or assumptions you have made.
Ask lots of open questions to try to understand the other side. Try to get a feel for what is driving them. What are their priorities and concerns? What is preventing them from agreeing the deal currently on the table?
You can ask all the questions in the world but if you don’t listen carefully to what the other person tells you, you are wasting your time and losing valuable opportunities. Active listening means actually hearing what people tell you; it means asking clarifying questions when the other person says something vague or that requires elaboration.
True listening means that you stop multi-tasking during a telephone conversation. Don’t type notes into your computer, scan emails or anything else.
Listen for underlying meanings, clues and cues and respond accordingly.
One of the most effective ways to show that you have listened (and heard) what they have told you is to quickly recap the key points they mentioned as being important. Or even buy yourself some time and information by asking them to recap their key issues.
Focus your full attention on the other person. Don’t listen to respond, listen to understand.
The negotiator then needs to build these needs into their thinking and into their negotiation solutions. Your proposals should take account of the information you have received from the other side; it is amazing how often negotiators listen carefully – then fail to take account of what they have heard. No matter how long we stand in the exploration phase deploying arguments, supporting our own position and opposing theirs, no progress can be made until the parties indicate their willingness to negotiate something different from what is initially on the table.
Negotiations only progress when proposals hit the table. The most effective proposals are those that accommodate the majority of the priorities from both sides (and all sides in multi-lateral negotiations) involved.
The negotiator who delivers conditional flexibility into their refined proposal must not be tempted to continue to over sell the new proposal; this potentially shows weakness or fear of failure. They should use their proposals to drive the process. Well-constructed, thought-through proposals that give your opponent what they want on terms that work for you is the best way to ensure that real lasting deals can be done.
And I agree with myself on that.
Five things you should be looking out for:
- Asking more questions. Persuasion is effective – but only to a point. Be careful not to overdo it and create a position that makes it difficult to introduce flexibility later.
- Try to fully understand what is stopping the deal being done. What is truly driving the other side?
- Think creatively about how new value can be introduced in to the process. What could they do for you that would make it easier for you to move? What could you do for them that would make movement unnecessary?
- Have an open mind. Try not to get too focused on a position. Negotiation is about being able to give as well as get.
- Think long-term. Once the sale is agreed the majority of your future relationship may just be focused on negotiation. Failing to set your stall out early may bite you repeatedly in future discussions
Good luck and good negotiating.
Alan Smith, Scotwork Partner