Mastering the art of successful negotiation

Stephen Boyle spent many years learning these skills and will be passing them on at a two-day course

UCD’s Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School is hosting a two-day “Winning Negotiation Strategies” course next month

UCD’s Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School is hosting a two-day “Winning Negotiation Strategies” course next month


Successful negotiations are not always about winning, they are mainly about getting the best long-term outcomes and frequently about making sure that the other side walks away with something as well. These are some of the central messages of the two-day Winning Negotiation Strategies course running at the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School next month.

“The course is aimed at mid to senior managers and anyone who has negotiation as part of their role,” says programme director Stephen Boyle. “These can be owner managers of SMEs or purchasing, sales or general managers from larger companies; anyone who needs to strengthen their negotiating skills really.”

Boyle knows a thing or two about this subject having specialised in the field of negotiation, influence, persuasion and communication skills and has 15 years’ experience in management consulting, corporate communications, strategic planning and change management. He currently lectures on MBA and MSc and Executive Education programmes at the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School and prior to this has delivered management development programmes in South East Asia, the US and Europe and his clients range from sectors as diverse as biopharmaceuticals, construction, automotive and law enforcement. He is also a consultant on management development programmes for the UN International Trade Centre in Geneva.

He explains that the course helps participants to acquire a systematic approach to negotiations. “People don’t prepare enough for negotiations and often don’t prepare at all,” he notes. “But what should you do to prepare? It’s mostly just commonsense, it’s not rocket science but it does require some thought. Firstly, you should set a target. An awful lot of people don’t set a specific target and many just have a vague one or are not ambitious enough. They are undermining themselves before they even start.”

This lack of ambition can have serious implications in life as well as in business. “I see it very often in MBA students who negotiate down their own aspirations. If you go in with ambitious targets it is interesting the effect this can have on opponents; they can often give more than they intended to at the outset.”

His next piece of advice is to think ahead and methodically prepare attitudes and arguments to be used during the negotiations but not to be too rigid. “Don’t be inflexible and don’t allow the agenda to be set by the other side. This is all part of the psychology of negotiations and you have to understand this.”

The course is firmly based in practice with participants taking part in very realistic simulated negotiation scenarios. These can be called role plays but they go further than merely acting to predetermined character outlines.

“Everyone is paired up and sent off on their own for the simulations,” Boyle points out. “They are not under the beady eye of the course tutors. They go away, carry out the negotiation and report back on the outcomes. These sessions result in an awful lot of ‘eureka moments’ where they get to see what strategies and behaviours worked and which ones didn’t.”

And what doesn’t work can often be most interesting. For example, threats to walk out of negotiations tend to be counterproductive, particularly when they are only threats. “A lot of negotiators who think tough talking is a good ploy actually get worse outcomes. And even when they get the outcome they are looking for it can work against them in the long run. They may force a price so low that a supplier leaves them and the next supplier who can meet that price mightn’t be nearly as good. This is the sort of sub-optimal outcome that short-term thinking in negotiations can lead to.”

Of course, the flip side can be equally destructive and being too soft can lead to very poor outcomes. “A purchasing manager can be good at their job but can be stuck in an unpleasant relationship with a supplier that they haven’t sought alternatives to or walked away from. Similarly, I have seen companies with customers who don’t pay and aren’t profitable but the company continues to supply them because they think they need them. They clearly don’t need customers like that and they either need to negotiate a better relationship or walk away.”

According to Boyle, negotiations should generally be about achieving the vaunted win-win situation where both parties get a reasonable share of the value on offer. “Participants also do role plays in price-based negotiations and these help strengthen bargaining skills. These sessions are quite interesting because Ireland doesn’t really have a strong bargaining culture. After that we move onto more complex negotiating situations and look for the clichéd win-win outcome where you create value for your opponent as well as yourself.”

He explains that this involves compromises. “You have to work towards a situation where you are giving up something of low value to you in return for something of higher value. Information gathering ahead of the negotiations is very important; this will give you insights into what the other side wants and what you might be able to offer them. The goal is not to simply grab a bigger slice of the pie for yourself, but to grow the overall size of the pie so everyone enjoys a greater return in the long term.”

The second day of the programme involves analysis of what worked and what went drastically wrong as well as exploration of dealing with situations such as employment disputes that can become quite emotionally charged. After that the wrap-up brings everything around to practical application.

“We look at how to apply what has been learned in real life situations,” says Boyle. “How we do this depends on the group involved. It’s a very practical kind of subject and we try to apply what has been learned to the particular challenges and situations faced by the course participants. For example, a manager in the food industry will need to use different negotiating strategies with suppliers than someone in a sector that is not so heavily regulated. By taking this approach we find that most participants see business benefits from the programme almost immediately.”

Stephen Boyle is a lecturer in negotiation and programme director of a two-day Winning Negotiation Strategies course at UCD Executive Education. The next course runs on February 12th & 13th. Visit for more information.