You’ve got two ears and one mouth: why listening is critical in negotiation

Last week I kicked off a series of articles aimed at helping you to prepare for your next negotiation. You can read the first entry around strategising and preparing yourself to negotiate here.

Today we are going to address the other side of the equation as we look to understand the motivations of the person/people you are negotiating with.

Clearly some of your interests will be shared, however it’s likely that some interests will be opposing. By putting some time into understanding the motivations and limitations of person you will be negotiating with, you will begin to understand not only the balance of power in the relationship, but also the potential levers you have to move the discussion in a direction you are happy with.

Before the negotiation: Put yourself in their shoes

What do they want from you? Where do their pressures come from? What are their concerns?

If you enter a negotiation understanding the concerns of your counterpart, you have the opportunity to address these fears outright, thus proactively removing some of the obstacles to achieving a positive outcome.

Similarly, understanding the constraints of the other side can help you to frame your own argument. If financial constraints have forced your boss to let go of some staff, perhaps negotiating for more training or some flexibility to work from home is a better course of action than pushing for more dollars at the risk of shutting the whole conversation down.

If you are able to understand what the other side is looking to achieve, not just in this negotiation, but also more broadly as a business, you can begin to engage with them on a collaborative level.

By addressing the ways that you can help them to achieve high level aspirational goals, you move your conversation away from one of ‘what I want vs. what you want’ to something far more strategic that is more likely to be mutually beneficial.

Understand the other side’s BATNA

Last week I introduced the concept of BATNA (basically, your next best option if the negotiation fails to reach a conclusion). While understanding your own BATNA will help you establish a walk away point and will clarify your thoughts as to what constitutes a good result from the discussion, it also pays to hypothesise what the other sides BATNA may be.

By understanding the BATNA of you opposition, you go a long way determining the balance of power in the relationship. Do they need to strike a deal with you? If so, you can push a little harder in the negotiation. If they have other strong options, you clearly have less leverage in the discussion.

During the negotiation: Listen – It’s the most important skill there is

Obviously, any insight you have generated on your opposition prior to the negotiation is based on little more than your own assumptions and best guesses. The only way to test these assumptions is to prompt the other side to speak and to listen carefully to what they have to say.

When you get into the negotiation, leave your preconceptions at the door and listen actively. The best business advice I have ever received came from my father, he said: “You’ve got two ears and one mouth and you should use them in that proportion.”

Remember, you have to address what people actually say, not what you think they are going to say.

Creativity is critical

When you are in a negotiation (and trying to reach a mutually beneficial outcome) its important to think beyond financial motivations. Be creative, keep an open mind and address the full range of interests that the other side may hold, perhaps there is something else you can offer up other than dollars that would satisfy both your needs and those of the other side.

Suggesting collaborative projects, better payment terms, and commitment towards initiatives outside of your previous remit show that your are committed to the relationship and that you are bringing something more to the negotiation than a stubborn point of view on an acceptable savings or salary figure.

The art of negotiation

I’ll leave you with the following quote from Sun Tzu’s Art of War which I think sums up the importance of not only preparing yourself to negotiate but also preparing yourself for your opposition.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”