The Softer Side of Negotiation

My new book Negotiation for Purchasing Professionals was recently reviewed by Peter Smith on the Spend Matters UK website. I read with great interest some of the commentary following the review and I thought it might be helpful to enter the debate and share some thoughts. Peter asked me to do a guest blog spot on his site and I’m sharing the content of that with you here as well.

Negotiation has many dimensions and success clearly depends upon how well we plan, how much research we do to understand our position and that of our opponent, and the way we trade, give concessions or use the power of alternatives to our advantage. Indeed there is no shortage of wisdom out there and plenty of tools and processes we can equip ourselves with—no self-respecting purchasing professional would ever leave home without a well prepared MDO, LDO or BATNA! However, negotiation has a softer and less tangible side, one that is an equal or even greater part of the negotiation process and is easily overlooked.

A negotiation may not fail, but it may not be the success it could be and if not how would we know? After all it is the seller’s job to make us feel we have triumphed over them! I teach negotiation all over the world and it is fascinating to watch delegates practice within a role-play exercise. Afterwards delegates will be unable to resist swapping notes with their opponent to see how well they did or how close or far away they were. Sadly though, real life doesn’t offer this facility and suppliers don’t tend to reveal how much money we left on the table after we shake hands.

The reality is, judging negotiation success is a challenge. Surely good planning and following a proven negotiation process guarantees a good outcome? Yes, it does to a degree, but unless we are able to see into our opponent’s head we can never fully appreciate their position relative to ours. No matter how good our intelligence, planning and process is, we can never fully anticipate the twists and turns a negotiation may take and we will always remain blind to some extent. Experienced negotiators cope with blindness by developing other senses. They talk of being able to ‘read’ their opponents or spot a bluff or simply knowing exactly when to close. The same experienced negotiators will also know how not to give the game away and how to deliberately mislead the other. Is this some mystic ability or a skill we gain through experience but cannot fully explain? There are things we can do to develop our ability here.

Across the many negotiations I have observed I estimate that as many as 7 out of 10 negotiation outcomes are compromised in some way by a party’s inadvertently giving away something about their position. Perhaps a slight shift in the seat at a key moment, a hand movement, something in their eyes, a word out of place, tremor in the voice or something that has sent a signal to a trained eye and ear to suggest things are perhaps different to how they are being portrayed by the other. The problem here is our brains are sophisticated instruments that do all sorts of things to protect us without us knowing. When I show one of my delegates a video of themselves negotiating and point out an action or intimation that compromised what they were saying, often they will have been oblivious to their action. If that isn’t enough, sales people receive, on average, much more training and than we do in this area and that may well include training around body language, matching approaches to the buyer’s personality, NLP or effective use of language and so on. So shouldn’t we do the same? Yes, perhaps, but in doing so we also need to appreciate the limitations here and that none of these will provide an instant ‘sixth sense’ for negotiators.

The problem in all of these areas is that there is little scientific fact to guide our thinking. Much is written on personality and behaviour, less on body language and meaning within spoken language, and what does exists may not be based upon much in terms of scientific rigour or proof but rather personal experiences of key protagonists in these areas. Yet we need to start somewhere. Reading body language is not something that conforms to a rigid set of rules; everyone is different. Indeed the FBI place less emphasis on trying to interpret ‘what’ people do and instead look for ‘clusters and changes’ that indicate something worthy of further investigation. Yet what is out there helps us begin to start thinking about body language and provides a basis to start observing and interpreting others as well as considering our own body language. NLP has its critics, but again it can help us to start reflecting on language and what may or may not be hidden behind what is said. With practice and experience negotiators can develop a powerful capability.

The softer side of negotiation is therefore something that runs alongside the actual exchanges and interactions of the negotiation. It is about being aware of and able to manage who we are and how we behave and it is about tuning in to a sub-layer of cues, signals and communication that provide vital intelligence to provide a degree of confidence that we are not leaving money on the table. It is not scientific; it is hard to define; what is written in this area may not be perfect—but it is a real part of negotiation and one that can make all the difference to outcomes.

Jonathan O’Brien
Author Negotiation for Purchasing Professionals
Co CEO Positive Purchasing Ltd