Written by 9:29 am Money & Lifestyle

The art of negotiating anything in life

About 8 minutes to read

Everything in life is a negotiation. 

Or so says Chris Voss, former hostage negotiator for the FBI, in the first session of his Masterclass.

“If you want somebody to say yes to something, you’re in a negotiation. If someone is trying to make you say yes to something, you’re in a negotiation,” he says. And it means that at work, at home, with friends, with strangers or colleagues – we’re constantly negotiating with others in overt and covert ways. 

Contracts. Hiring, managing performance, pay rises, promotions, firing. Defining deadlines and timelines, scopes and deliverables. Budgets: suggesting them, agreeing to them, extending them, reducing them. Creating partnerships. Undertaking joint ventures. Offers and counteroffers. So many chances to say yes. So many opportunities to say no. And that’s just at work. 

At home it starts again – what to watch next on Netflix; whose turn it is to make dinner or walk the dog or whether today is a wine day; haggling over screen time, bedtime, free time; who you’re going to see on your one hour, lockdown walk this weekend. It stretches to bigger things too. You might have to negotiate on how much to spend or save with yourself or your partner. You may be discussing where you want to live or if you’re ready to move house or buy together or whether to stay together. 

So many aspects of our lives are formed of dozens of minute negotiations, at least half of which we probably don’t even think of as negotiations at all. But we have to learn to negotiate on many different levels in order to be able to truly achieve our full potential. After all, even if you’re already doing well, there’s nothing to say you can’t be doing even better, right? 

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading up on the top tips on negotiating, taken the Voss masterclass and spoken to some fantastic negotiators from the business world. Here, I’ve compiled some of the insights and tips, hopefully you’ll find them as useful as me. 

Empathy is your negotiation superpower

Yes, I know, we’ve all seen the movies where the suited and booted play hardball with each other, glowering across a table, refusing to budge on their position. It makes a great story when the little guy finally finds a chink in the armour and manages to win the day. Or when the passionate founder holds her ground instead of being subsumed into a portfolio. But in real life, it’s not aggressive body language and an uncompromising approach that will turn you into a top negotiator. It’s empathy

“Empathy should play a role in everything we do,” says Joel Primus, serial entrepreneur and founder of premium underwear brand, Naked, as well as co-founder of travel apparel business, Kosan Travel. “If you’re at the negotiation table then there is a common interest and an opportunity for two parties to get what they want or need. So, no matter the negotiation we’re engaged in, we need to act with empathy and integrity. A metric I use is whether or not I’d tell my children how I handled a situation. Your negotiation will net out more success if you have an understanding of the person on the side of the table.”

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Emotional intelligence is key to negotiating. Our ability to show empathy and forge complex connections with others allows us to better understand the decision-making processes and motives of others. Highly empathetic people are therefore often good at picking up people’s emotions and listening carefully to what’s being said. 

As Ocean Costelloe, founder of Spark Flow Grow, a virtual operations provider, says, “Behind every negotiation, whether that’s an important business decision, general conversation or a fleeting interaction, there is a human. It is important to remember that, especially in business settings. Every human in business, or those entering into a negotiation, is a person who has their own objectives, needs, desires, wants etc. Remembering the human side of business allows us to at once separate and align person and paper and fosters deeper understanding of their personal and professional drive.” 

All negotiation is collaboration 

“Your enemy is not the person sitting across from you,” Voss tells his students in the very first episode of the masterclass. “It’s the situation. The person across the table is a counterpart who is struggling with some aspect of the same problem that you are. Work with them to solve that problem together and you’re both better off.” 

Ultimately, what Voss recommends means taking a less combative approach than we’re probably used to seeing in the media. Instead of assuming there’s a fixed pie, zero-sum, win-lose situation, you’re choosing to find a principled or interest-based approach that prioritises the relationship at its core. It’s about finding out the values of both parties and creating a win-win situation where everyone can eventually leave feeling like they’ve achieved a result of value. 

Primus agrees. “[Negotiation’s] not a competition. It’s a collaboration. In theory, both groups are there in the spirit of a positive and proactive result where everyone can win… at least a little,” he says, noting that thinking this way can actually undermine your position. “If you approach a negotiation with a mindset that you’re trying to better the other person or business, unless you have a tremendous amount of leverage, I personally believe you increase the chance that the other groups walk away. Get to the other side of the table, be empathetic as well as knowledgeable about how your asset (or assets) can solve their problems or provide them opportunities.” 

A collaborative approach is based on transparency and trust – and it may mean diffusing someone who was more inclined to be competitive, by showing your strength whilst offering an olive branch. Establishing empathy helps here, because it helps move you from opponent to partner as well. 

Emphasising that everyone has their own objectives and that at the end of the day negotiations are about coming to agreements that benefit everyone, Costelloe adds: “It’s not about winning and losing. But rather coming to a place where all parties can achieve the best (or as close to the best) desired outcome possible in their respective contexts. Negotiation is about collaboration and opening yourself up to the possibility of change in order to make all parties happy, based on an understanding of their needs.”

Preparation leads to empathy

It should come as no surprise that one of the first things that comes up in every article, podcast, course, or conversation, is that the most successful negotiations start with research. Almost a quarter of executives surveyed for a London Business School negotiations poll admitted their biggest barrier was down to a lack of preparation, second only to a lack of mutual understanding (34%).

So do your homework on who you’re negotiating with. This means knowing more than their name or company profile. It’s about knowing their wants, their needs, motivations and pressures. What other options does this other person have? How are they different from you? 

“Empathy is critical in negotiations. To reach a good outcome for yourself, you often must learn the other person’s priorities that they don’t share out loud,” says Geoff Cudd, founder of car negotiation website, FindTheBestCarPrice.com. “This can be done by asking questions, advanced preparation, or simply putting yourself in their shoes and thinking about the deal from their perspective.

Make sure you have all the data that you need and any insights that might help you. You never know when some seemingly innocuous piece of information you’ve learnt might become key to the negotiation. Voss calls these ‘black swan moments’ – when some titbit changes the game. 

The fact is that information is the surest path to empathy. Lewis Wilkins, founder of Turnstyle Media, uses personal target marketing to help his team be more strategic when approaching prospective new clients. “Because of the current climate, I’ve had my team create lists of their biggest spenders and best relationships. We then look at the similarities to define an ‘optimum target market’. Once we have the data, it makes lead generation a lot easier, as it does conversations, because we already know the people we’re talking to,” he says. “Having the right data means you should be able to pick out a number of traits that inform the way the person you’re targeting likes to negotiate. It can also point out the type of people that you personally resonate with – so it’s easy to create empathy because in theory you’re talking to like-minded people. In short, it’s one thing to know your company’s target market and another to know your own, as it’s not only easier to approach them but a better way of talking to people who are like-minded. Negotiations at this point are a breeze.” 

Know your instinctive response 

Top negotiators talk about the three instinctual categories we fall into: fight, flight, or make friends. But when negotiating, we need to not only know what type we instinctively fall into but also learn to adopt characteristics from all three. 

What does that mean? Well, most of us are aware of ‘fight or flight’ as stress responses, understanding that one means staying and fighting off an aggressor whilst the other means running and avoiding the aggressor. But there’s also the option to ‘tend and befriend’, which includes seeking out others for mutual help and protection, turning the aggressor or others around them into friends who want to support you. Ultimately the ‘friender’ response is about being likeable. 

In negotiation terms, the fighter means being able to assert your own interests; the flight type is much of an analyst, thinking things through – perhaps too much – but very important when you’re negotiating. And the type that focuses on making friends means applying emotional intelligence.  

“We hate people that are blunt, but we love straight shooters. What’s the difference?” Voss asks his interviewer, Mark Divine, on the Unbeatable Minds podcast. “A straight shooter says stuff emotionally intelligently. The blunt guy is the same amount of assertion with no emotional intelligence.” 

What we all need to do is be able to know our own instincts – mine, for example, is to be more of a “tend and befriend” approach – but also be able to adopt the body language and skills of other types when appropriate. Likewise, we need to learn to recognise these types in others. After all, two natural fighters going up against each other could end badly, fast. Instead, it might be time to cool your own instincts and dial up your emotional intelligence or analytical skills in order to get what you want. 

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Active listening and dynamic silence 

There are many skills that make a great negotiator but two of them that come up again and again are active listening and dynamic silence. 

Active listening is more than just nodding along and proving that we’re paying attention. It’s about engaging with what’s being said, listening with the intent of understanding. 

Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation, talks about active listening as a dynamic process that consists of ‘paraphrasing, inquiry and acknowledgement’. This can also be described as ‘labelling’ – where you verbally acknowledge the other side’s feelings and positions, and which can reinforce positive feelings or deactivate negative ones – and ‘mirroring’ – where you consciously repeat what’s been said to show you’re listening and understanding.  Again, all of these actions are about building rapport, trust and empathy.  

But sometimes it’s better to say nothing at all. “Silence is very powerful,” says corporate negotiation specialist, Elena M. “When they tell me what they want, I’ll acknowledge it, but then go quiet to let them keep talking. They always say more than they mean to.” 

Elena, who preferred to comment anonymously, says she frequently deals with people who underestimate her and describes silence as her best weapon. “People are afraid of silence. To them, it may be a disapproving silence, an irritated silence, a sympathetic silence,” she says. “The point is that all those things are in their head. I’m probably not disapproving or judging at all. But they will make the next move to try and solve what they think is happening, explaining themselves, giving me more information to work with.” 

Cudd seconds this, saying that talking too much is the worst thing people can do when negotiating. “People get uncomfortable at gaps in the conversation and try to fill the void,” he says. “Instead, if you let the other person speak, they will reveal more about themselves and their true priorities, giving you the upper hand.”

And that’s, of course, where active listening comes back in. 

Ultimately, it’s not about getting a ‘yes’ 

“The goal of the negotiation is not to make them say yes, it’s to make them say that’s right,” says Voss. 

In fact, he says this more than once and repeats it in interviews and podcasts. Because ‘yes’ can be a counterfeit, a way to end a conversation, to avoid further questions. Instead, he says a ‘no’ can be more valuable – creating an opportunity to get more information and create a space where there are no commitment fears in the way of further conversation. 

Because the type of negotiation we’re talking about is about coming to a joint agreement. It’s about applying tactical empathy and fostering rapport. It’s about collaborating to solve a problem and all parties walking away with what they consider to be valuable. 

The power of negotiation is one that does far more for us than make us better businesspeople. It’s not just about being able to push for that promotion or pay rise or merger or investment raise. It can empower us to have a better life, a freer one. We can apply the tactics of negotiation to many different areas of our day-to-day, and by using empathy we avoid jeopardising our relationships or friendships. In fact, it might just make them stronger. 

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Last modified: 29 January 2021
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