How to Survive a Negotiation, without the Bloodshed
Part I: The Measure of Success – with or without coals
An old guy once told me that negotiation was like two men getting into a wagon. “Someone’s gotta go first.” If you’re in business, you have experienced negotiation. As far as score cards are concerned, I think my track record is better than most. This isn’t as much a boast as it is an honest observation. I have survived for 30 years as a freelancer because I believe that my negotiating style has proven to be effective both in terms of creating feasible contracts and in causing situations that are mutually beneficial.
When I embarked on own many years ago, I wanted to make deals that I thought both parties could live with; arrangements that offered the best possibility of mutual growth. That meant using my wits to find my balance and my knowledge of the other side to establish the middle ground between us as rapidly as possible. At the end of the day, I produced workable arrangements where neither party had a clear advantage but where all parties clearly benefited equally. In my eyes, that’s what being a successful negotiator is all about.
My method made a few of my early bosses very unhappy. One viewed me as too weak. “I didn’t go after the kill,” he said; I didn’t draw enough blood. Another claimed that my lack of aggression was demonstrative of immaturity, weak insight and bereft of a “strong business vision.”
In their view, if the deal wasn’t raking somebody over the coals, you’re not doing your job right. After all, business is business, just as war is war? Right? With twenty years of my own professional path behind me, absolutely “wrong.”
The error in reasoning is confusing war with business. I admit that there are war-like qualities in business. I also admit that I have never met a successful negotiator who had the altruism of Mother Teresa, myself included. However, my experience with negotiating (which includes personal contracts as well as contracts for clients) has shown me that over-aggressive posturing wastes energy and deprecates any gains you can squeeze out of your negotiating “partner.”
Over-aggressive negotiations tend to create unreasonable and unsustainable excesses in the initial positioning; that’s in the best-case situation. In the worst case, it produces resentment that lasts the lifetime of the agreement. It is reasonable to use some tactics to push for the best deal, but why heap up unnecessary gamesmanship to hammer the opposition until they give up? While I appreciate the time-honored tactic of pressing a little sense of urgency to close a deal, is it necessary to hang a sword over your opponent’s head?
Over-aggressive tactics will mess everything up. The task of negotiation becomes an effort-wasting wrestling match. You may also trigger in your negotiating partner their own path into aggression: they’ll push back, take advantages where they can. You’ll go around and around with a dance of tit-for-tat, and to what end? A percentage point or two? Negotiation ought to be an art of discovering mutual opportunity. No need to dig one out of your partner’s chest – with a spoon.
It’s time for a new game plan.
See Part II