Problem-Solving Your Way through a Negotiation

Going into a negotiation knowing what you want is good… right? Well, not if you’re fixated on it; not if you are absolutely set on getting that one concession; that one demand; that one thing you, or more likely, your boss so dearly desires.

Because when we’re absorbed in the blindness of ‘wanting’, we humans don’t seem to consider the cost of having to actually live with that want, and we forget that we might be shooting ourselves in the foot by putting an unattainable stake in the ground right at the beginning of the negotiation.

On the other hand, if we enter into a negotiation with the attitude that what we want probably has hidden difficulties and perhaps costly ones at that, we approach the coming talks with an open mind. And open minds are capable of seeing as-yet-unthought-of possibilities.

So, you’re walking into the negotiation room in full awareness there might be unforeseen difficulties associated with getting what you want. The next step? As you begin (and all the way through), remind yourself: “This person has a problem and I have a problem (in other words, we both have unmet needs/wants). And the two of us are about to solve them without penalizing ourselves or our companies/organizations”.

Of course, (per last month’s article), the other person might not have the same approach to the negotiation that you do.  In fact, they might be thinking of the negotiation as a battle and therefore see you as their enemy.  As such, we think it is in your interest to set the stage – and negotiate a new game as necessary.

After the courtesies and chat about the weather/traffic/sports team, start the negotiation “talking about what you want to talk about”.  That is, get agreement on what you are there to talk about (or re-confirm, assuming the agenda was agreed in advance). Then, start by introducing the small points that you can likely agree upon. Starting small with relatively easy “yeses” is not only a great way to build momentum and establish good relations, it lets you assess the other person’s overall attitude. Are they willing and/or capable of creating the kind of give-and-take underpinning that produces a level-playing field, or do they hold fast or give way grudgingly? In other words, start with a productive yet low-risk approach, and use it to suss-out the underlying dynamic.

If the dynamic seems adversarial, our first piece of advice is to just carry on playing a productive game and see whether they come around to your mutually-beneficial, joint-problem-solving way of negotiating.  If they don’t start to warm up, then address it immediately: stop the content of the negotiation and discuss the process. The last thing you want to do is bring the central or delicate points into an adversarial atmosphere.

You could say something like: “I see our meeting today as a problem-solving one. You have a problem you’re trying to solve for your organization and so do I.  I believe our success is linked.  I believe that if I come out a loser and you come out a winner (or vice-versa), soon enough we’ll both lose.  Do you see it differently?”

As noted above, what you’ve done is taken the spotlight off the outcome / end-goal / content and focused it on the process, and onto a team-building one at that. Time and again, this can be a very effective way to get things back on track.

If the other person denies that there’s anything wrong, there could be many reasons for it.  You may have said something that upset them but they don’t want to tell you, or they might in fact be seeing the situation as a battle (which makes you their enemy) and they don’t trust you enough to change the game; they might be worried about the soon-to-be-discussed large issue(s), or maybe they’re just having a really bad day.

If they decide to come along with you into a mutually-productive approach, consider starting by listening to them (if they’re ready / willing to talk), for example, “So why don’t we start with you telling me more about the issue you’re trying to solve? Then I’ll tell you what I’m wrestling with and let’s see what we can work out. Sound ok to you?” (Note the mini-process negotiation there at the end: “Sound ok to you?”  The more you disagree about what the outcome should be (the content), the more important it is to have some form of alignment about how to find a solution (the process).

Note that by concentrating on the other person first, you boost the relationship, and you learn about what matters most to them, so you can begin to think about how that might affect you and how you might – together – solve each other’s shared problem(s).

If the dynamic is healthy, don’t wait too long before you bring up the bigger issues otherwise you may introduce tension into the room (they’ll begin to wonder why you haven’t told them what’s most important to you, fueling suspicion). Again, present your idea of negotiation as a problem-solving endeavour, using the same ‘what problem are you trying to solve’ question.

We recommend you apply this “joint problem-solver” lens to your entire negotiation. You might be surprised how effective it can be.


Here are some Tips to help you along the way:

Focus on Underlying Interests, not Stated Positions / Demands
When we make requests or demands in negotiations, we almost always state them as positions, for example, “We need you to lower your price by 10%”.  A counter-offer might be, “We can offer you 2%, but not more”.  A compromise solution would be a 6% reduction. A position is a statement of what someone wants.  But what are the true interests (wants, needs, goals, concerns, objectives) that are driving the demand for a 10% price reduction?  Why do they want it?  Probably it is some version of “save money”.  If the interest is “save money”, would there be other ways for a buyer to save money aside from getting a lower price?  ABSOLUTELY!  You could change how the service is provided or structured, change the “package” of services that are included in item “A” or “B”, alter the delivery schedule or shipment size (in the case of goods), or find a way to manufacture them more cheaply so that price IS lower but profitability is maybe even improved, to name a few. The concept is incredibly simple, but putting it into practice is very powerful.

Your Frame of Reference
Treat your negotiations as puzzles to solve instead of battles to win.

A Power Imbalance
You may be negotiating with someone who is more powerful than you. Or a company whose business you need. But never forget that that person would not be negotiating with you if you didn’t have something they wanted.

A power imbalance can lead to a loss of self-confidence. So, here’s an incredibly quick and effective way to gain it back. It’s called the “As If” principle.

Consider Your Alternatives
Know your BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement). Your BATNA is the path you will take if you no agreement can be reached. Think of it as your “Plan B” – your back-up plan. Knowing your BATNA stops you from accepting a truly poor offer, and as such, puts you in a stronger negotiating position.

Be careful with ‘You’
Address topics impersonally when you can, and watch out for flawed assumptions and accusations.  Be cautious about saying ‘you’ or ‘your company or department’ did such and such – especially when you’re upset. It feels like an accusation (and often is), and will spark defensiveness and possible counter-attack from the other party. Talk about processes i.e.: “Let’s talk about how such-and such happened, because the current approach isn’t working for me/my organization… ”


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