Negotiation – Have We Got It Wrong? admin November 1, 2017

Negotiation – Have We Got It Wrong?

*This article first appeared in the Guardian Masterclass Blog.

With Brexit negotiations constantly in the news, everyone has become an expert and has an opinion on what David Davis needs to do to get a good deal. But are they right? Do these beermat philosophers really know what they are talking about?

Negotiation is a much-researched topic, and projects like the Harvard Program on Negotiation have built extensive bodies of work, studying what actually works in practice and revealing a number of common misconceptions on the subject.

So let’s have a look at some of the commonly held negotiation beliefs research has shown to be wrong.

Good = tough

Perhaps the most common myth is that to be a good negotiator, you need to be tough and never budge an inch from your position. There are many problems with this approach. First, if both sides are tough negotiators and nobody budges, nobody gets a deal: a deal that could benefit both parties is lost because neither side is willing to shift.

Alternatively, if the sides do begrudgingly move to meet somewhere in the middle, you can end up with a result where neither side is happy. For example, one side could walk away thinking they sold something for a steal and the other side may still believe they paid too much.

Being a tough negotiator, you may also get a reputation and people will either not want to work with you or – if they really have to – factor it in accordingly. That 20% discount you got? Well, maybe unbeknown to you, they had first hiked the price up by 30%.

Don’t give away too much information

We are often told we should not give the other side too much information because they will use it against us. In actual fact, studies show that the more information is shared, the better the solution reached.

Trust is very important in negotiation – the greater the trust, the better the outcome – and the best way of developing trust is by showing it. In other words, share some information. Obviously, you should not be too naïve, but in general, sharing information is a good thing.

It’s all about power

A lot of the conversation around negotiations is about who has the power. But in actual fact, if power is a factor, the deal is already on shaky ground.

Let’s say you have all the power in a situation and you want to push something through just because you can – even though the other side does not want it. What will happen is they will find a way to even things up.

The horsemeat scandal is a great example of this: supermarkets used their muscle to push through terms that were unprofitable for the supplier, so the supplier simply swapped the beef for horsemeat. The win-lose approach rapidly becomes lose-lose.

You need to use tactics

Everybody has their favourite negotiation tactic – good cop-bad cop, take it or leave it, a deadline – and there are many more. But they don’t work. Correction: they work, once. And once only. Because afterwards that other person will never trust you again. It’s like clickbait – you fall for it once and never again.

However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think through what you are going to say. But tricks are likely to be counterproductive in the long run.

You have to compromise

The myths above are mostly held by “tough” negotiators. But “nice guys” have myths of their own, too. For example, that it’s all about compromise. Actually, good negotiators avoid compromise. Instead, they see negotiation as a process to create extra value, so all parties are better off and no one has to compromise. It’s the 1 + 1 = 3 solution.

Compromise takes place when the desired outcomes are mutually exclusive, but the best negotiators know that if you dig deep enough, this is rarely the case. This is not to say “never compromise” – but compromise should be the last resort.

So next time someone is giving you advice on how to negotiate, it’s always worth checking it against the research. Maybe your old-school adviser is not actually giving you best practice after all?


Update Oct 2020

If you want to see a short video that illustrates a lot of this in a fun simple way, check this out. It uses evil dolphins, Dick van Dyke and a fun game on the Southbank to show how many people’s perspective on negotiation is simply wrong.