Happy Negotiating

UPDATED: May 15, 2024
PUBLISHED: January 23, 2014

There are two components to any negotiation: 1) The substance—whether you’re negotiating over how often you should visit the in-laws, cookies or a better contract with one of your partners; and 2) The people—from your spouse to your 5-year-old to your business competitors. Negotiation skills training has long focused on the substance of negotiation: How can you get what you want— or close to it? And the success of a negotiation was judged only on how much of the substance you “won.”

But in recent years, top negotiators have slowly switched their emphasis to the “people” part of the equation. And people are emotional. While traditional negotiation practices might advise you to check your emotions at the door, the new thinking is to invite them on in.

“The key asset in most small businesses or any business really is reputation and relationships. And that’s all emotional,” says Daniel Shapiro, Ph.D., co-founder and director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program and co-author of Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate. Being a shark (negotiating deals in pursuit of only your best interests) can come back to bite you in the tail. Indeed, the new thinking in negotiation—led largely by the folks at the Program on Negotiation (PON) at Harvard Law School and its Harvard Negotiation Project, whose leaders have included the late Roger Fisher and William Ury, Ph.D., co-authors of the 32-year-old negotiating bible, Getting to Yes, which popularized the concept of “win-win” agreements—is to take a positive approach to negotiating.

A positive, warm-and-fuzzy approach isn’t just nice; it’s good business. Jim Camp, author of Start with NO, can concede, “Tricks and tactics may get you so far, but the real success is in forming relationships.” And that means acknowledging how both parties feel before and after a negotiation. Someone who feels cheated, mistreated or dismissed isn’t likely to do business with you again. Learn the fundamentals of positive—and successful—negotiation.

Trust your counterparts.

Trust is critical to fruitful negotiations. Instead of being suspicious of the folks across the proverbial table (whether it’s a potential business partner or your spouse, parent or child), try to assume the best of them. One study from Johns Hopkins Carey Business School in Baltimore found that negotiators who are more trusting—and who, in turn, assume that their counterparts are themselves trustworthy—are more likely to walk away from the table with true win-win agreements. “People have a deep-seated fear of being taken advantage of,” says Ury, a professional mediator who worked with the U.S. and Soviet governments in the 1980s to de-escalate the nuclear crises. “But that attitude is really counterproductive.”

Forget about leverage.

While traditional negotiation practices start with the assumption that one of the parties involved is in a position of higher power with more leverage, modern negotiators eschew this notion. Skilled negotiators don’t need to rely on such intangibles, Camp says. “Relationships aren’t forged through leverage. You may be the only Ford dealer in town, but if you jack up your prices, people are going to switch to Chevrolet.”

Don’t confuse negotiation with competition.

Competing over status in a negotiation—Who has more money? Who has a “bigger” title? Who is more of an “expert”?—only leads to anger, shame, resentment and conflict, Ury says. But don’t ignore status, either. “Everybody has areas of status within their own worlds that we need to have validated and respected,” he says. Respect your own areas of expertise—whether it’s tax law or product design—and those of your fellow negotiators.

Redefine success.

“The goal of negotiation is not always to reach an agreement, it’s to satisfy the needs and desires of both parties,” Ury says. “Sometimes you go into a negotiation and you realize it’s not going to work. And that’s a successful negotiation.” Example: Your friend wants you to invest in his startup company and become a partner. You’d like to help, but you’re not sure you want to make a commitment. After going over the business plan, you realize that you just don’t have the confidence you need to invest. You didn’t reach an agreement, but you deterred a possible friendship flare-up down the road. And now you can be his sounding board over beers.

Hearing no can be a good thing!

It can be scary going into a negotiation. What if my spouse says no to having another baby? What if my boss balks at my raise request? What if my mother refuses the idea of a live-in nurse? But if you think of no as a starting point to negotiations—rather than the end—it’s not so scary.

“That’s when the two parties begin to go back and forth about where the agreement falls short,” Camp says. “You should be more worried about hearing yes right off the bat, because you don’t want them to regret it or change their minds. And maybe it wasn’t the best deal for you.” Acknowledge that both of you have the right to say no. “Giving people the permission to say no without hurting feelings takes a lot of the emotion out the process,” he says. Camp recommends starting out a possibly contentious conversation by saying, “Look, you can say no, but I wanted to run an idea by you.”

Go to the balcony.

Imagine you are on a stage negotiating. When things get heated or if you’re losing your temper, negotiating experts recommend “going to the balcony” of the theater for a time-out. It’s a classic negotiating tool with a timeless message: Think before you speak.

Ury jokes that the modern-day version of going to the balcony is hitting the “save as draft” button instead of “send” on an email. Before you send out an angry, passionate, demanding or even conciliatory email, Ury recommends asking yourself, “Is this email really going to serve my needs? Will it help this negotiation process?”

Stop the attack/defend spiral.

“You never take my side!” “Well, I would take your side if you ever thought of anyone besides yourself!” “Maybe you need to look in the mirror!” We’ve all been down this rabbit hole. A negotiation over something as simple as where to vacation can spin out of control into what professional negotiators call the “attack/defend spiral.” Put a stop to it by refusing to say anything that could be perceived as aggressive or defensive.

Be honest about what you really want.

Many negotiators we spoke to shared this parable: Two sisters both want the last orange in the fruit bowl and agree to cut it in half. One sister squeezes her half for juice and the other uses the peel of her half for orange zest. They both wanted the orange, but for very different reasons. If they had expressed their real interests, they both could have gotten what they wanted.

Say you want your family to move to the suburbs, but your partner wants to live in an urban area. Dig deeper to find out exactly what’s motivating your desire to move and why your partner wants to stay put. You might be worried about the expense of city living and your partner might be worried about giving up his social circle. Until you figure out what’s behind your demands, it will continue to be a city versus suburb war with no middle ground. But once he knows you’re nervous about money, he may offer to cut back on his expenses or push for a raise. “We tend to underestimate how many solutions can meet our interests,” Ury says.