The art of negotiation. Is it really an art?

Is negotiation really an art? Do people actually enjoy negotiating? Why are some people so damn good at negotiation and why do I run away from it like the plague? Questions I ask myself very frequently about the art of negotiation.

Ready to crack this negotiation minefield I recently attended a workshop organised by Norton Rose and led by Zainub Jenna Bata – a Harvard negotiation graduate!

Throughout the interactive workshop, Zainub expertly explored ways to negotiate more effectively and specifically explained the differences in which men and women generally approach negotiation. Here are my key takeaways from Zainub’s talk, which I hope will help you all when negotiating yourself through life…

We all negotiate at many points during the day, be it at work, home, with the kids – it can all be challenging and when the conversation starts you never really know which way it is going to go. This unknown fear of conflict can cause a lot of worry and anxiety for some and stubbornness and determination from others.

An important point to understand before we go into the details, people approach negotiation differently. The manner in which people negotiate has been studied at length, and it is statistically proven that men and women approach negotiation differently (this is generally speaking of course and not true in all cases – we aren’t trying to stereotype here!)

Males are generally seen as hard negotiators – ‘Zero-Sum Game’ – in other words, I win and you lose! There is no consideration for the relationship with the other party or indeed what is in front, sideways or behind; it’s irrelevant to them – the focus is purely on the outcome of the discussion going their way. As a result of this approach men are often respected and seen as ‘The Boss’…

In contrast, women are generally seen as having an ‘Everybody Wins’ approach in which they look at the needs of other people and approach negotiation with understanding, looking at the impact on others and using their listening skills more than their male counterparts. Using this approach women are often seen as ‘soft’ or ‘graceful’. Of course, we are not all made the same and often women buck the norm and approach negotiation in a more traditional way, not dissimilar to their male counterparts. However, sometimes when women use the male approach it is often commented that they are bossy or forceful and not seen in a good light – unfair I am sure we will all agree.

Over the past years, studies have advanced and as a result scholar’s approaches to teaching negotiation have changed. As an example, Harvard now only train collaborative negotiation – a method which focuses on preparation techniques and the people involved to achieve the best result when you head into a negotiation discussion.

After hearing this, I have to say I had a sigh of relief as I am no hard negotiator! However, I did question how we approach collaborative negotiation, while still delivering on our objectives.

Prep, Prep, Prep

Like so many things in life, preparation is key in a successful negotiation. When you are faced with a situation that requires negotiation, this is where you can implement the technique method.

There are a number of researched and proven techniques you can use to prepare ahead of your negotiation and reflect back on during and after to assess your outcome.

1) BOTNA – Best Alternative to a negotiation agreement.

Which means:

  • What is the best outcome I can hope for?
  • What is the worse position I could have as a result?
  • What is the lowest point I will walk away?

Key Learning: You should always identify your best alternative before heading into negotiations. This will give you clarity on how important this ideal is to you and how far you can move in the discussions.

2) ZOPA – Zone of Possible Agreement (otherwise known as the insult zone!)

When you begin your negotiations make sure you have done your homework – research the industry and ensure you have market knowledge – this is key especially when discussing financial aspects.

Zainub gave an example of how to use ZOPA in the session:

Example: Imagine you are going to buy a bottle of Oud from the market which has a market rate of 100dhs, then you offer the seller 10dhs, the seller is going to feel annoyed and insulted (and rightly so), if you had done your homework you would have a starting point for your negotiations and might have started your discussions at a more realistic price, in turn not damaging your future relationship.

3) Anchoring – this is your starting point, the first number or information you share with the person you are negotiating with.

People will advise you in different ways on how to approach who starts the negotiations. Some advise not to divulge numbers straight away, though the other side of this is you could be seen as hiding information which is not good for building relationships, you will also be respected for knowing your numbers and positioning as a professional – as long as you have completed your ZOPA correctly! In my personal view, I would get started with a realistic number – after doing my homework of course!

4) People

This is the second area of focus for your negotiation preparation. A few key and yet very effective outtakes from Zainub’s workshop:

1. Always be at your best when you walk into a negotiation setting – whatever it takes for you to feel at your best, do it! Be it wearing a certain outfit, grabbing a coffee with a friend or mentor, exercising or reading a book – you know what works for you, so do it!

2. Confidence– do not mistake this with being bossy or arrogant. Have faith in yourself that you can do this! You can prepare and build your confidence in many ways, such as, practising your ‘power stance’ or running through your approach in front of the mirror. Always believe in yourself, there is no reason you can’t negotiate this situation successfully.

3. Know your self-worth – don’t let anyone make you feel you’re not up to this. You know what you deserve to get out of this discussion, and you know your alternative and the lowest point you will walk away. Ensure you respect your value and get what you deserve.

4. Assertiveness – Know what you want, again don’t fret you are being bossy – you’re not. You are clearly stating what you believe is the right action and your rationale behind this

5. Listen reflectively – The number one skill of a negotiator is listening and moreover reflective listening. Reflective listening means understanding the other person’s reasons, their needs and desires as you work through the negotiation. Don’t make assumptions; it’s a trait that the majority of us do, do your best not to fall into that trap. Also, observe non-verbal language, i.e. the other parties body language, all the while trying to understand the person you are negotiating with deeper – this will, without doubt, make the negotiation so much easier and rewarding.

The above 5 points are simple; I am sure you will agree. However, we aren’t always great at delivering them!

Another great tool to support you when preparing for negotiation is ‘Positive Self Talk’. We all experience self-talk; you know that voice in your head that keeps you worrying or feeling great (whichever you allow it to do). Unfortunately for us ladies our self-talk is not as effective as men, and we are generally more negative self-talkers and as a result on the back-foot in negotiation situations.

Never fear there are lots of ways you can teach your self-talk to be more positive. One of the best ways to overcome negative self-talk is to listen to it and challenge it. If that voice is saying ‘Urgh this negotiation is going to ruin my day and there is no way this is going to go in favour of what I want’ – challenge it. Look at the facts; yes the negotiation might be a tricky situation, and it might be uncomfortable, but if you’re prepared and positive you can turn this around to a solution that suits you and hopefully the other person too!

I’d like to end with a few examples of some of the biggest and best negotiations from 2017 (let’s hope you don’t have to deal with anything quite on this scale!)

I hope this helped; the session certainly helped me. Don’t forget to prepare, believe in yourself and keep that positive self-talk flowing… you got this!


The article was written by Louise Karim, Managing Director of Women@Work