You might think that—in a perfect world—clients, friends, and spouses would all agree wholeheartedly to each idea or preference that came to your mind. Want to raise your rates? Each of your clients would give the A-OK. Feel like asking your buddies to wash your truck on the weekend? They’ll happily do it. And if you want to only binge-watch your favorite shows over the holidays, your spouse will hand you the remote without a single complaint.
First, the scenarios described above are unrealistic—and second, they’re unhealthy. Nobody should always get what they want from others. It would be destructive to relationships and probably make life boring.
Which brings us to the art of negotiating. You can attain awesome things, but you also need to engage the other party to learn their preferences, look for common ground, and secure your biggest priorities.
Before you solidify your priorities in life, you first need to identify them. It’s impossible to negotiate effectively when you don’t know where you want to go.
“In the 30 years we’ve spent as advisers on hundreds of negotiations, ranging from agreements to resolve armed conflict to multibillion-dollar commercial deals, we have codified what makes negotiation strategies effective,” the negotiation experts from Vantage Partners tell the Harvard Business Review. “Negotiators should start developing them well before the initiation of talks…With well-thought-out strategies, negotiators can suppress the urge to react to counterparts or to make preemptive moves that are based on fears about the other side’s intentions. They’ll be able to prepare for the worst but not trigger it—and to identify the actions most likely to have a significant impact on deal outcomes.”
Creating a solid strategy starts with knowing your objectives and understanding the person you’ll be negotiating with. Take time to read through their website, talk to colleagues familiar with them, and browse their social media channels. Study the context to learn the topics they’ll likely focus on in the discussion. If you know their priorities and fears, you’ll have a great foundation from which to base your dialogue.
Remember to use this preparation as a way to improve dialogue, rather than simply wielding it as a weapon. You should enter the negotiation as ready to listen as you are to speak.
“It’s no surprise that one of the most vital skills you can leverage as a business professional is being a good negotiator,” says Forbes. “However, many businesspeople fall into the trap of extremes when it comes to negotiating with others. They try to push their perspective onto their peers, and the result is a communication breakdown. Sometimes it can even lead to outright hostility, which won’t benefit the business or the owner. Business negotiations require finesse and an understanding of the person on the other side of the table. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be aggressive, but you should know where and when to stop to get the best results.”
Here are 7 additional tips to help you become a better planner, communicator, listener, and—ultimately—negotiator. These recommendations might not all be applicable to you, but they should be able to help you identify areas where you can grow.
- Know what you need: There will always be minimums that must be met in a negotiation—otherwise, you won’t find the value your business needs. Determine where you need to land before you jump into the meeting.
- Go in with attainable goals: We all like to daydream about negotiations where we achieve greatness and then get carried triumphantly out of the room on the shoulders of our peers. Since we live in the real world, go into your negotiation with a realistic set of goals.
- Put your credibility front and center: Make clear from the onset what you have to offer and that you’re willing to work with the client to find mutually beneficial solutions. You’ll gain more from establishing this collaborative approach than playing hardball, which only makes the other side dig in and prepare for battle.
- Err on the side of directness: This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to be blunt and forceful. But you should speak in the clearest way possible in order to avoid misunderstandings. As one business expert once told me, “Communicate in a way that makes it impossible to be misunderstood.”
- Avoid unnecessary battles: Strong negotiators have no problem being aggressive on certain points—but it’s a waste of time, energy, and goodwill to compete with your client on nonessential factors.
- Communicate your concessions: When your client makes a demand that you feel comfortable accepting, let them know that it’s a sacrifice on your part. That way, you can pivot to asking for something that’s important for you. This can be as simple as saying something like this: “I didn’t come into this discussion thinking that I would be lowering the price to $25 a pound, but I feel that I can do that for you. In exchange, I’ll need you to agree to the full shipping price.”
- Look for win-win conclusions: As every fan of The Office knows, the only thing better than a win-win is a win-win-win. Your goal in negotiations should be a happy client, rather than someone who leaves the meeting licking their wounds. An unhappy loser from a negotiation rarely ends up a long-term client.
Even after all of your preparation and effort, it’s important to be OK with walking away. There are times when an agreement simply can’t be reached. If you push too hard, you’ll burn bridges. Concede too much, and you’ll hurt your business.
By bringing your best to each negotiation but being prepared to step away from the table if things aren’t productive, you’ll put yourself in a true leadership position. You won’t nail every negotiation—no one ever does—but you’ll put your business in the best position to win. And that’s what negotiating is all about.