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How to improve your negotiation skills

Four practical steps to take towards a more constructive approach to negotiations

Negotiation by its very nature requires compromise and there’s always some degree of mutual dependence. Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Professional negotiators and researchers alike hail the Batna (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement, or “walk away” outcome) as a negotiator’s primary source of power. But relying on even the best of alternatives as leverage can be tricky business.

Batnas help negotiators establish minimum or maximum thresholds beyond which a deal with a particular negotiator is of no value. In essence, they are a defence against an inferior agreement.

But they are not designed to facilitate relationship building, exploration, creativity or collaboration, all of which most researchers and practitioners agree are necessary to reach the often sought for, but rarely achieved, optimal agreement.

Here are some practical steps to take towards a more constructive approach to negotiations:

Think mutual dependence, not just alternatives

Ascertaining why and how deeply one’s counterparty needs what you’re offering is central when it comes to relative power. You and your counterpart would do well to spend your efforts focusing on the power inherent in your mutual dependence.

Mutual dependence is determined by the sum or the average of Party A’s dependence on Party B, and Party B’s dependence on Party A. The connection between mutual dependence and power is direct, and it exists in every negotiation.

Find power in your context, not your feelings

Power in a negotiation is not based on your subjective view of what you have to offer, but rather the objective reality of what you have to offer in relation to the needs of the other party. Feelings of power are irrelevant.

Focusing on mutual dependence can again be helpful here. For example, in hiring and promotion negotiations, it can be helpful to focus on the power present in the respective needs of the companies in relation to your skills, strategically framing the narrative around the value of mutual gain that could be achieved by hiring or promoting you.

Focus on learning, not buying or selling

Your priorities during a negotiation should be learning as much as possible about the person and entity with which you are dealing and ascertaining as much as possible about their circumstances. To gain the information you need, structure early questions as generalities.

You don’t want to come across too aggressively, especially with negotiators who are less inclined to answer too many questions. As the negotiation proceeds, you can transition to more specific questions.

Treat the unknown as a place of hidden potential, not a frightening minefield

Negotiations are won mostly at the preparation table, not the negotiation table. Do your research, but don’t feel bound by the limitations of that information. The facts that you have indicate only some of the probabilities, but certainly not all of the possibilities.

The most emotionally challenging aspect of preparation involves embracing the unknown as a place of potential in the negotiation. The discovery of information on both sides of the table provides opportunities for creative solutions.

Negotiation by its very nature requires compromise and there’s always some degree of mutual dependence. So be careful not to short-circuit your main power source because you are so focused on alternative power sources.

Your Batna can help you determine what is probable if the current deal fails to materialise; however, it’s incapable of revealing a deal’s full potential.

Copyright Harvard Business Review 2017

Jay Hewlin is an attorney and a lecturer at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management.