For many people, negotiation is seen as ‘no-go-tiation’; it’s often considered an awkward and daunting process, where everyone is uncomfortable and no one wins. But it doesn’t need to be that way. When done well, negotiation can actually be…enjoyable.
It’s easy to feel like you don’t have the necessary skills or experience to negotiate, but negotiation is really communication.
We all communicate, every single day.
So, whether you’re navigating a simple opportunity or something more complex, there are baseline skills you can learn, hone, and eventually rely on. With the right application, these skills can help you create positive relationships that are mutually beneficial.
While everyone tries their hand at negotiation once in a while, the art can take many forms: ranging from setting salary expectations, negotiating the cost of a new car or simply getting a better deal at your local deli.
This article provides tips that broadly apply to a variety of situations, but draws on my experience as an account manager. So, if you’re an account or project manager, or frequently deal with proposals and contracts, you can improve your hit rate in negotiations with some simple techniques.
But before we get down to business, there’s one key piece of advice you should always heed, in any project interaction:
Avoid emotional discourse; it gets everyone off course.
Whenever you’re negotiating, it’s important to keep your emotions in check. You don’t need to be mechanical or become a robot. Just keep a reign on things. Maintain focus; both your own, and your client or customers’. Stay calm. Remember, your role as a negotiator is to ensure that everyone gets more from the engagement.
You don’t need to be a robot to keep it professional.
Think about what’s important—achieving the project outcomes and creating great work—rather than potential problems, consequences, or the capacity for retaliation down the track. Set a positive and pragmatic tone early on.
It’s easier to avoid things boiling over when you understand why people get emotional. So, what’s the recipe for irrationality?
Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. A new project often means someone’s job (or at least reputation) is on the line. People are being assessed, and they’re often personally invested in the outcome.
Alternatively, people may feel a sense of ownership or entitlement over a piece of work, which can actually be a positive motivator when guided appropriately.
With that in mind, the first technique for improving your negotiation skills is:
Spend some time understanding who you’re dealing with. What risks do they see in the project? What are the past experiences colouring (or haunting) their perception? What is going to keep this person up at night for the next few months?
Once you have the answers to these questions, you can set about alleviating them as concerns, one by one.
The process of gradually eliminating or addressing a person’s anxieties is a great way to build a rapport and establish trust, which ultimately leads to a more receptive, respectful working arrangement overall.
For example, a new website redevelopment can be an intimidating prospect for the uninitiated. Or equally, for people who have been through the process and been scarred by their experience. Take a moment to discuss the undiscussable.
If you encourage skeletons out of the closet early on, there’ll be less chance of a bone to pick down the track.
What contributed to a poor experience? What was the worst aspect of the project? Why was the work deemed unsuccessful?
Note down the answers and devise a plan to tackle each one individually.
For instance, say the management team didn’t buy into the project or understand the effort involved in the work; deliver a document outlining the discovery or delivery process to build a common understanding across the organisation.
Say the project went over time? Openly discuss the need to jointly set and adhere to deadlines, for both parties.
And if a problem seems unsolvable? Well…
Re-frame the problem.
A problem shared is a problem halved. Don Draper famously quipped:
“If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.”
Similarly, if a situation is becoming uncomfortable, or there’s an impasse, change the way the scenario is perceived.
As an example, say a long-term client needs to reduce their budget. Given it’s a long-term relationship, the assumption is that there’s a strong rapport.
Rather than getting stuck in the negative connotations of the reduced spend, frame the scenario as an opportunity to focus your efforts more intently. Instead of ‘what are we cutting from the program of work?’, change the conversation to ‘where might you get the most value from our input?”
This technique offers two-fold benefit:
- A conversation is always more palatable when it is framed in a positive light, so the discussion becomes easier in general.
- When you approach things through the lens of positivity and optimism, it’s less tempting to attribute blame for any negative outcome.
Although it may be human instinct, you should never play the blame game.
Prime people to listen to you.
As I mentioned earlier on, a large part of successful negotiation is basic communication skills. And, a key part of communicating is listening; both to others, and ensuring other people listen carefully to you.
Although people often hear, they may not necessarily listen.
A conversation can be influenced by preconceived ideas and experiences; people might not say everything they think; they may have different definitions or an alternative understanding of the terms being used.
It’s going to be difficult to achieve a positive outcome if you’re not speaking the same language. Be straightforward. Be honest. Be transparent. Be clear.
Try clarifying—or better yet, eliminating—all unnecessary jargon or ‘internal terms’: anything that may be unclear or unfamiliar to a lay person.
For example, once while preparing a quote for a piece of work, I used the term ‘wireframe’. This typically refers to a low-fi schematic, or a structural concept that is agreed upon before fleshing out a more polished version of a product. The client understood ‘wireframe’ to encompass all design work. The miscommunication came about because we failed to define terms and consolidate our understanding.
There are multiple tools you can use to ensure you have a shared understanding of key concepts. Use physical examples to highlight what you’re talking about. Show, don’t tell, and create an environment where it’s ok to admit your unfamiliarity with a term or phrase.
At August, we make good use of our jargon paddles. We know the digital landscape is vast and ever growing, and it’s easy to get buried under buzzwords and digital terms—if someone in our team doesn’t understand something, they can raise their bat for answers.
Need clarification? Put up your paddle.
It may have killed the cat, but curiosity is a key ingredient in successful negotiation. Questions can be much more powerful than statements because they open dialogues and help you glean insight from other people’s perspectives.
Stuart Diamond offers another gem: “a statement commits you to whatever you said; it doesn’t get you any information, and it gives the other side something to throw things at. You become the target. A question, on the other hand, doesn’t commit you, usually gets you information, and gives you something to throw things at if you wish. Questions focus the other side [of the negotiation] on themselves.”
It’s not about cross-examining people; it’s creating or contributing to an atmosphere where people feel comfortable to express opinions.
For example, imagine if a client receives a solution a developer has prepared. You supply a test site, or staging site, before committing the change to a live website. The solution is reflective of the static designs, but the client is unhappy.
You could say: ‘the proposed solution is entirely faithful to the designs you have already approved.’
Or, you could ask: ‘what about the solution do you feel misses the mark, compared to our discussion around the designs? How is this different to what we have talked about previously in the project?’
Which conversation do you think will be easier to manage? Which approach is likely to create a better outcome?
Avoid going any faster than the slowest.
Wherever you are in a negotiation, it’s essential to take things one step at a time. Try to go as fast as the slowest person in the engagement; ensure that every person in the room has the same understanding and is comfortable with the pace of the conversation before moving on.
Taking it slow can sometimes feel like an uphill battle.
Avoid interrupting anyone. When you interrupt people, they’re often still processing or replaying what they intended to say in their head, and trying to work out where to inject the comment back into the conversation. And if they’re preoccupied with this process, chances are they’re not listening.
It comes back to qualifying and aligning your understanding.
For example, imagine progressing to a stage where you are negotiating terms in a contract via email. People are getting frustrated, or there is a sticking point—specific wording on a clause is causing an issue.
Instead of exchanging more emails and creating chain reactions, get everyone in a room, in person, and take a step back. Don’t get caught up in progressing things too rapidly.
Go back and go as fast as the slowest. This could mean going back to revisit each clause and clarifying how each party understands it. This way, everyone gets an opportunity to explain their issue and play an active role in alleviating it.
Think beyond the immediate tangible transaction.
Great relationships are collaborative rather than transactional. Before you can make the jump from transaction to collaboration, you need to understand people’s goals.
There are ways to add value to relationships that go beyond what someone stipulates in a request for proposal. And when you understand people’s goals thoroughly, you can better identify these opportunities.
Think about valuable things you can give away for free, in addition to the value on offer in your transaction. Because when you invest in a mutually collaborative relationship, the transactional element of that relationship may become less significant. In turn, you may not have to negotiate over project scope or fees as much.
For example, imagine working with a non-profit organisation. You may need to reduce project fees to meet a budget. Instead of baulking at the prospect of reduced fees, think about other ways you could make up the difference.
Sponsorship opportunities? You might get your name on a list of sponsors, which could provide additional opportunities within the sector or industry.
In-kind? You could get free tickets to an event, and use them as an incentive to strengthen another relationship. The key is to think creatively.
Another example is to add client training opportunities as part of your scope; basic Google Analytics training, perhaps. The client receives greater value than the original transaction, and you’re potentially providing yourself with improved opportunities by teaching people about the value, complexity, and importance of a service. Everybody wins.
So, there you have it.
Remember, many of these techniques are probably already in your tool belt. The key is to refocus and consider them as skills, rather than innate qualities. Practice them, hone them, and perfect them.
Good negotiating is learned but we all have the basics at our disposal. In the meantime, keep these three questions in the back of your mind:
- Are people ready to listen to you?
- Are people actually listening to you?
- Are you saying what you actually mean?
Keep the answers ‘yes’, and you might find that’s what you start to hear more often in response to your negotiations.