I came across a great book on negotiation by a Harvard professor, Deepak Malhotra. It’s filled with effective strategies on dealing with tough negotiators—whatever curveballs are pitched your way. Since I’m always looking for the crucial tools that empower people to succeed, this caught my eye. Negotiating is an Achilles heel for many, but it’s a key part of most situations. So how can we better prepare to take control of the game and win it?
Professor Malhotra is a seasoned negotiator who has lent his formidable skills to realms from boardroom battles to diplomatic deadlocks. At Harvard Business School, he teaches negotiating as a highly refined skill to be learned and practiced. It’s not out of reach to any of us. But winning a tense negotiation is not a matter of stubbornness, or aggressiveness, as he writes in Negotiating the Impossible. It starts with preparation–and you can advance your own position far before you’re hashing out that deal. Here are three of his top advance strategies:
1. Get organized.
As a performance coach, I teach about the benefits of setting your priorities and maintaining your focus. According to Professor Malhotra, you can apply the same tactics as you head into a negotiation. Know the rules, the players, and the parameters—before you begin. It’s a form of due diligence that will erase the probability of nasty surprise popping up just when you think you’ve arrived at a deal.
The method he suggests may seem counterintuitive, but it’s not. While it’s commonly assumed that asking questions makes one seem weak and uninformed, the opposite is true: Ask away. It’s the best way to find out firsthand what you need to know: Who is responsible for making the final decision, and if he or she is participating in the negotiation. Ask about the timeline and benchmarks. Try to get an accurate assessment of where the other side is truly constrained, and where there’s room to move.
2. Acknowledge out loud that it’s going to be tense.
I’ve witnessed countless instances when performance diminishes due to burnout or stress, and valuable momentum is lost. In a high-stakes negotiation, everyone has a threshold. There’s a point when the emotional pressure may just seem like too much for someone, and the deal-making grinds to a halt.
Pave the way by simply saying it. Professor Malhotra suggests having a preliminary discussion about how strong emotions are a normal part of the negotiating process. Just allowing for strong feelings works to defuse them; after an understandable peak in the tension, you can all get back to work. The last thing you want is a mutiny: you want to get this deal done.
3. Take care of yourself.
Highly effective people take care of themselves regardless of the situation: they maintain their focus and avoid taxing distractions. Anticipate that your opponent may pitch some curveballs your way, and prepare yourself to not swing the bat.
No matter how much your opponent tries to upset you or gain control with an ultimatum, ignore it. Just don’t listen, says Professor Malhotra. Again, this is a powerful advance strategy for driving a better outcome. If you let someone hang themselves up on a “Never,” they have no room to back down later and still save face. That’s an impasse you may not be able to undo.
There’s a dual purpose to these preparations for negotiating. By reaching a mutual and spoken understanding, and talking about the inevitable stress points, it’s harder for your negotiating partner to pitch a curveball, or walk away. And, in a sense, you’ve both now set the table, which means you’ve already negotiated successfully. By not getting hung up on a dangerous ultimatum, you’re taking care of your negotiating partner as well.
You can’t expect to become a better athlete without working on the mental as well as the physical components of your own performance. Whether it’s to achieve a personal best or a stronger season, it takes preparation and focus to succeed. As Professor Malhotra shows, it’s no different with negotiating–whatever the playing field.