2 Necessary Skills for Success at the Negotiating Table

As an entrepreneur, you are no doubt aware that your ability to negotiate effectively is one of the more useful skills in building a great company. Very often negotiation success translates directly into entrepreneurial success.

That’s true whether a negotiation involves partners, investors, employees, governmental agencies, suppliers, vendors, business buyers or sellers. Being an adept negotiator in any of these situations can potentially make a significant difference in how successful you ultimately become.

Related: 5 Steps to Master the Art of Negotiation

Of course, there are different approaches to negotiation — and it makes sense to determine which style you should adopt based on your goals. Although there are lots of ways to categorize negotiation tactics, the methods largely boil down to two:

  • Get maximum leverage over the other party—and then use it to bludgeon them until they crumble and you get as much as you possibly can.
  • Attempt to ensure that everyone involved in the negotiation gets as much out of the deal as possible by using techniques that reflect needs and wants.

The first approach can certainly be effective, short term — especially if you don’t expect to negotiate with a particular party ever again, or don’t expect to negotiate much at all going forward.

However, if you’re focusing on the long game, you are likely best served by adopting the second approach –closing a deal in which everyone walks away feeling like a winner.

According to Frank Carone, executive partner at law firm Abrams Fensterman, “In any negotiation, the sides have their lists of needs — that is, the minimum they require to make a deal. They also have lists of wants, which are things that will sweeten the deal. It’s important to understand your own needs and wants, but also the other side’s needs and wants–although achieving the other side’s goals is of no moment. Then the key is to ensure that your needs are met, but within the optimal framework of everyone’s goals, along with as many wants as possible.”

Gaining a reputation among others as a hard but fair negotiator who hones in on needs and wants can go a long way to helping you achieve your professional and personal goals. This approach works in the moment and it sets the stage for greater long-term successes if you negotiate again in the future.

Carone says the way to get exceptional results as a negotiator consistently over time is to focus on what each side truly needs to make a deal work—while also finding a way to get compromises so each side gets some of what it wants.

Related: You Can’t Always Get What You Want: The Art of Negotiating

The two keys to discovering what really matters to people are:

  • astute questioning
  • constructive empathy

1. Astute questioning

Many great negotiators are very proficient at soliciting information and directing the negotiating process. Keep in mind that astute questioning accomplishes more than one objective. It will result in answers, sure, but it can also give you insights into a person’s biases, preferences, level of sophistication and decision-making process. Astute questions can achieve the following aims:

  • Obtain information from the counterparty
  • Ensure the other side understands terms and issues as you do
  • Help identify what matters most to the counterparty

Astute questioning can also be very effective in moving the negotiation process forward. Questions can actually be more effective than assertions in getting people to take action.

2. Constructive empathy

Simply asking questions is not enough, however. You also have to communicate to the other side that you understand their views, limitations, needs and wants. It can take real effort to see a situation from a different vantage point than your own. But that kind of effort is what’s required to negotiate in a highly effective way—and it’s what constructive empathy is all about.

Constructive empathy is a mindset, a primary value orientation and a skill set. For instance, being constructively empathetic is a meaningful way to show respect. Wanting to be empathetic can fall seriously short unless you are proficient with key interpersonal skills such as:

  • Probing
  • Fostering concreteness and clarity
  • Summarizing

Underlying constructive empathy is active listening. By and large, listening is a skill that is easy to understand but difficult to do consistently. But it’s a critical skill in order for you to capture and truly understand what the other side is communicating, as it includes attention to both verbal and nonverbal messages. Active listening also entails understanding the context—the current situation, the other side’s backstory and their expectations.

Related: For Entrepreneurs, It’s All in the Art of Negotiation

The needs and wants on the other side of the negotiation table

Astute questioning and constructive empathy are very effective in enabling you to determine the needs and wants of the other side. Of course, closing a deal also requires that you know your needs and wants clearly. Then you’re able to find areas of overlap—and it’s those areas that form a solid foundation for agreements.

The good news: Astute questioning and constructive empathy are learnable skills. Even if you’re already using these skills, you can always refine and hone them.

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