7 Expert Negotiation Tips for Effective Deal-Making in 2024

March 4, 2024 2024-06-15 12:46

7 Expert Negotiation Tips for Effective Deal-Making in 2024

Negotiation Tips

7 Expert Negotiation Tips for Effective Deal-Making in 2024


Peter D. Johnston, the Managing Director of NAI, is an internationally recognized negotiation expert. He’s advised corporations, governments, entrepreneurs, and individuals from more than 100 nations, and is the award-winning author of the global bestseller, Negotiating with Giants. He can be reached by email at PeterJohnston@nailimited.com.

Date Posted: May 25, 2023

In counselling my clients on negotiations, I don’t talk about tactics, tricks, or how to win at the other side’s expense. To the contrary, I focus on the distinct mindset, strategies, and less conventional ways of thinking that have informed history’s best negotiators, as surfaced through my negotiation firm’s research and publications. My hope is that you, too, can benefit from the simple insights and examples below in your personal and professional lives.

Be aware of how much you negotiate so you can constantly learn and improve.

A lot of people think they don’t really negotiate very much because they rarely go to a negotiation table with lawyers and sign contracts; well, 99.9% of negotiations have nothing to do with written contracts or legal language. That’s because you’re negotiating anytime you try to influence someone to do something. This likely makes your most frequent negotiation counterparts your partner, kids, extended family, boss, colleagues, friends, neighbors, salespeople, service providers, public officials, doctors, teachers, and anyone to whom you provide services or products for a living. These dealings can take place in person, over the phone, or through emails, text messages, social media, video conferencing, and even protests in the streets. In short, anytime you’re sending messages in any form to cause someone to act, or not act, including through your tone and body language, whether you intend to or not, you’re negotiating. Remaining aware of how much you negotiate allows you to draw on proven negotiation strategies, tactics, and psychological insights on all fronts, while constantly improving as you apply best practices from one context to another.

As one simple example of learning across contexts, if you put your kids to bed and always read them the same number of stories, the consistency of that standard usually leads to fewer conflicts around bedtime. At work, similarly, if you always apply the same pricing standards, just as Apple does, this approach can also result in less stress and fewer conflicts. Anytime you feel you’ve done something well or poorly in influencing someone, ask yourself how you can learn from that experience and apply it elsewhere in your life.

Don’t try to beat the other sideinstead, role model a collaborative mindset.

In many contexts, we have a natural tendency to try and win, beating others in any number of competitive undertakings, from sports and politics to academics. But if we don’t question this instinct while negotiating in the context of long-term deal-making and relationship-building, we will lose. Why? Because aggressively claiming value from the other side almost invariably leads your counterpart to do the same. This is hard on relationships, undermines trust, and results in the parties not increasing the potential value of an agreement through the collaborative sharing of interests and creative ideas for satisfying these interests. The reality is this: the better you can satisfy the other side’s interests, the more able and inclined they will be to satisfy yours. In short, acting collaboratively is the winning formula for both sides to a negotiation, and this is proven systematically by the world’s best negotiators as well as computer simulations. If the other side is not collaborating, you have to be clear that if you both adopt that approach, you’ll both lose, and that you, too, can aim to play a win-lose game if they keep up their approach to claiming value primarily for themselves.

If you see two gas stations on opposite corners with pricing that seems eerily similar despite very different costs for each based on distinct supply chains, you are seeing natural competitors who have figured out how to negotiate with each other collaboratively. At some point, one likely tried to underprice the other to gain market share, quickly discovering their competitor countered with an even lower price, hurting profits for both. Over time, while not allowed legally to collude against consumers through direct discussions, these two gas stations have figured out, through a simple exchange of prices on their signs, how to legally co-exist and jointly profit in a sustainable manner, whether we like it or not as consumers!

Stay away from the negotiation table as long as needed.

A lot of common negotiation tips relate to what to do and say in conversations with your counterpart, which, of course, can be important. But in any significant negotiation or conflict, before you communicate directly with the person or organization you’re trying to influence at the table, consider a range of other possibilities to enhance your positioning, how you’re perceived, and even your ability to get to the negotiation table. Such steps away from the table can include raising your profile through well-timed media coverage, learning more about your counterpart’s interests and vulnerabilities through more research and those who know them, improving your walk-away alternatives to increase your leverage, and building both targeted support and broad coalitions to meet your goals. You might also stay away from the table to wait until the context favors you more, like a boss who’s not so stressed, an improved economy, or when your product’s quality has been upgraded.

Nelson Mandela is one of history’s most brilliant examples of negotiating away from the table. Even during his years in prison, he broadened support for his cause and the ANC (African National Congress), meeting with, and writing letters to, religious leaders, heads of government, corporations, and other influential voices. With a far-ranging global coalition woven together and resulting pressures in place, the ANC finally propelled itself to the table to negotiate the end of apartheid, a new constitution, and free elections that would see Mandela become his nation’s first black president in 1994. Without negotiating so effectively away from the table over the course of five decades, the ANC would likely never have been allowed at the negotiation table or been able to maintain power once they had it. Of course, in other contexts, staying away from the table can involve just hours, days or monthsnot years or decadeswhatever is required to help offset any power imbalances, increase your leverage, and raise your odds of getting to the table and achieving success once there.

Pay attention to the invisible negotiation embedded in every negotiation.

When most of us are negotiating, we tend to focus on what we want and compelling arguments for getting it, whether that’s a higher salary, a lower price, better service from a provider, or a contract we’re hoping to be awarded. But that’s usually a mistake. Why? Because we’re ignoring a second, less obvious negotiation that is often much more important than the substance of talks (the terms and conditions of a deal). This second negotiation is over how we are negotiating, and if you get it wrong as a source of influence, it’s as flawed as taking the wrong path while hiking, meaning you risk never arriving where you intend to go, or if you do get there, it will take a lot longer. How you negotiate, which is the process by which you pursue the substance of a deal, can include where and when you meet, who’s at the table, the issues to be addressed and in what order, as well as the rules of engagement, including how you’ll speak to each other in tone and approach. Even though the process used to reach most agreements rarely appears in a final written contract, which is why it remains invisible for the most part, the negotiation process is always reflected in whether a deal is reached and how well its terms and conditions meet your interests.

Say you’re looking for a raise. You can set up a time to speak to your boss in their office as one process option. The downside is that you risk being unduly influenced by the formality of this particular negotiation path, where there is a clear authority figure, often sitting behind a desk, in a context where they rule, and where they can be interrupted by a call, or choose to be interrupted, while you’re discussing something that really matters to you. As an alternative pathway, you could tell your boss that you have something that you’d like to discuss with them, choosing whether you need to be clear about the specific topic or not, and that you’d really appreciate if they could meet you away from the office for coffee or lunch. The benefit of this second approach is one of less formality, fewer distractions, less of a power imbalance, and it’s harder for your boss to just get up and leave if they don’t like the topic. The choice is yours as to which process best meets your specific needs. The important thing is that you’re making a conscious choice, determining that one path or the other is most likely to yield both a better salary and a stronger relationship with your boss.

Bring together your most important decisions, activities, and negotiations.

The best negotiators paint all of their core activities, significant decisions, and negotiations onto one canvas before stepping back and plotting their way to optimal results on all fronts. To put it simply, in selling a house, you can try to attract as many buyers as possible to create an auction among them as one effective negotiation approach. But you won’t be assured of getting the highest price possible if you haven’t painted your house recently, repaired anything of significance, and renovated the kitchen and bathrooms in a decade or more. That’s why smart realtors will advise you to make such improvements before selling.

The same benefits arise from this integrated negotiation approach when smart tech companies that know they want to sell to a larger player at some point ensure their core business, systems, and culture are reasonably compatible with those of potential acquirers, making them more attractive targets. Another company in the chemical industry decides to hold off on announcing a new plant before it can use this decision as leverage in its union contract negotiations. A final example of integrating negotiation strategies with core daily activities comes from the sports world and the concept of a “contract year”: if you’re a pro soccer player in the final year of your contract, your agent will greatly appreciate if you have a career-year statistically to help you reach comparable pay with other top players. You can perform brilliantly and negotiate poorly, or perform poorly and negotiate brilliantly, but there is nothing quite like a combination of the two when you reach the negotiation table.

Trust them, but not in the way that you usually think about trust.

When many of us think about trust, we imagine it as an all-encompassing belief, just as we might envision trusting one of our beloved friends or family members to always act in our best interests. But in other contexts, such as the workplace, this can be an entirely unhelpful view of trust that often leads to breaches both on the way to deals and after they’ve been reached. Instead, the best negotiators think differently about trust: what they trust is that those they’re negotiating with will do and say whatever meets their own perceived best interests, not ours. Why is this helpful? Because it’s realistic and actually empowers us as negotiators. By focusing on understanding the interests—the goals, needs, and concerns of our counterparts—they become more predictable, so we know what to share with them and when, and we can structure deals and compliance mechanisms accordingly. We can even help shape how they perceive their own interests by talking through the pros and cons of their potential decisions. Our resulting trust won’t be, and shouldn’t be, all-encompassing; it should be tailored to specific areas where your trust is most warranted because of their interests, the defenses you’ve implemented to protect your key interests, and smart compliance rules to ensure any breaches are less likely to occur in the first place.

The actress Catherine Zeta-Jones thought differently about trust before she married actor Michael Douglas. As part of their pre-nuptial agreement, given concerns she had about his fidelity, the actress reached a unique deal tailored both to his interests and her own. Her deal with Douglas apparently includes a $5 million fine for “each act of infidelity” should the male star of Fatal Attraction ever follow his famous character’s lead and cheat on his wife. By understanding Douglas’s relational, sexual, and financial needs, and how he values each of these needs relative to one another, Zeta-Jones no doubt sleeps more easily at night, trusting that it’s highly unlikely her husband will ever dare to breach their formal pact.

The goal in any negotiation is not to reach agreement, it’s to get to a choice.

At the negotiation table, your job is to build trust and rapport, ensure all important facts are surfaced, dig into their interests and yours, create options to jointly meet these interests, apply independent standards to confirm which options are most appropriate, and then structure deals that are comprehensive in covering off all key issues and interests. Rather than committing, there remains one vital test, composed of a choice: does the deal on the table meet your interests better than the pursuit of your best walk-away plan, and any other alternative actions you might pursue without this particular counterpart’s consent? If what’s on the table doesn’t measure up, you may need to keep working at improving the deal, and when that’s no longer possible, walk away, at least for now. In this way, a negotiator’s role is to get to this choice point, not a signed deal, because frequently people focus so much on just getting a deal, often over many months, even years, that they lose track of whether the deal is still warranted and better than their alternatives, including the status quo. Ideally, throughout the negotiation process, negotiators are constantly revisiting their alternatives away from the table and improving them both to increase their leverage at the table, and to actually better meet their interests should they ever choose to walk away.

I was once called in to help renegotiate a deal that should never have been signed. The negotiators had been sucked into a lengthy negotiation that was once in their organization’s interests but no longer made sense. Why was it signed? In part because it had taken so much time to negotiate, in part because year-end personal bonuses were looming large, and finally, because these negotiators lost track of keeping their alternatives alive, active, and constantly evolving. Organizations need to make sure they incent their negotiators, both intrinsically and financially, to say no to bad deals. Individual negotiators must keep their eyes on the prize, how to best meet their interests, which sometimes means walking away.

Peter D. Johnston, the Managing Director of NAI, is an internationally recognized negotiation expert. He’s advised corporations, governments, entrepreneurs, and individuals from more than 100 nations, and is the award-winning author of the global bestseller, Negotiating with Giants. He can be reached by email at PeterJohnston@nailimited.com.