It’s fascinating how often you have to negotiate in life. From big things like salary or business deals, to smaller day to day tasks like who’s going to do the dishes, I realized that you can’t EVER avoid a negotiation. If you’re doing something every single day, might as well try to get good at it, right?
I recently read “Never Split the Difference” by expert FBI negotiator Chris Voss to learn specific methods when preparing for and in the midst of any negotiation. The gaborito (Portuguese for “answer key”, also used as “bottom line”) is that the people who negotiate for a living rely on fundamental research from psychology to operate effectively in their jobs.
Tying together specific methods Voss laid out in his book with findings from said psychology research, below are some useful techniques, and WHY they work, that anyone can use during any negotiation.
First, what is a negotiation?
I’m defining a negotiation as a situation where you and another party need to get something done, but the terms of that “something” have not been defined. That’s where the negotiation comes in.
What is the ultimate goal?
In my opinion, the ultimate goal should be getting the terms you want. As Voss literally says in the title, you never want to split the difference because that leaves both parties worse off (more on this later).
Why do we negotiate?
This could go many different ways and get philosophical, but in the end, things need to get done and progress needs to be made. People have different views and motives, and of course, different incentives on how said things should be done. In many cases, you might have something that needs to get done, but the other party might not care that much, and vice versa. Negotiation, at its core, allows us to achieve goals with others while maintaining our ability to make our own decisions freely.
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An economist will tell you that all humans act rationally in their own best interest. As I’m sure you’ve figured out, in the real world this simply doesn’t pan out. That last piece of chocolate you ate does not help you further any goals nor provide for your well being. Almost all of us make decisions based off of emotion, often times convincing ourselves that we’re making a “rational” choice to cover the fact that we can’t think rationally. As Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman quips in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow”: “We are blind to our own blindness.”
So what’s the point here? You can’t win a negotiation by trying to appeal with reason. You immediately put yourself at a disadvantage.
As Voss says, “Most of us enter verbal combat unlikely to persuade anyone of anything because we only know and care about our own goals and perspective.”
How do you find out about another’s goals and perspective? UNDERSTAND THE OTHER PERSON FIRST. Here’s Voss:
“Work to understand the other side’s “religion.” Digging into world-views inherently implies moving beyond the negotiating table and into the life, emotional and otherwise, of your counterpart.”
Voss embeds in his students that in order to create the right frame for any deal to get done, you have to first understand the emotions of your counterpart, and appeal to those emotions. Here are a few strategies he lays out to get started creating empathy and understanding (see how none of these use cold ruthless logic):
A simple technique, you mirror someone by repeating the last 3 words, or repeating the most critical pieces of information, that they just said.
For example, if someone says, “Man, I just had a tough day, my boss wouldn’t stop pestering me with requests,” a simple mirror looks like, “hmm, pestering you with requests?”
This builds rapport with your counterpart by showing that you actually listen and have heard what they had to say. Everyone wants to feel listened to, and this encourages them to continue with their thoughts for you to better understand their frustrations, goals, fears, or other emotions or desires they harbor.
Labeling refers to calling out the emotion of the other side to lay it out on the table in order to discuss and move the conversation along productively. While it seems combative on the surface, Voss describes the usefulness of labeling:
“We employed our tactical empathy by recognizing and then verbalizing the predictable emotions of the situation. We didn’t just put ourselves in the fugitives’ shoes. We spotted their feelings, turned them into words, and then very calmly and respectfully repeated their emotions back to them. In a negotiation, that’s called labeling.”
Labeling someone’s emotion by saying “It seems like you think I’m being unfair”, or “It sounds like you really understand this business” gives your counterpart a chance to better explain themselves or help you better understand their perspective. Again, this all goes back to recognizing the importance of emotions during a negotiation and teasing them out.
A sub-technique of labeling that I’ve enjoyed using already is called an accusation audit, where you label all of the things a counterpart could say about you or the situation preemptively.
I’ve found that this helps 1) infuse a bit of humor into the situation and 2) show whomever I’m negotiating with that I actually understand their perspective and want to figure out a way to get the deal done.
For example, if I ask someone on a different team than mine to help with an important ad-hoc request I know they won’t like, I would say, “Hey, I know you probably think I’m being annoying with this request, I can imagine you think this is a waste of time, you probably hate me right now.”
In Voss’s words, in an accusation audit you should,
“List the worst things that the other party could say about you and say them before the other person can. Performing an accusation audit in advance prepares you to head off negative dynamics before they take root.”
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My friend Ren had been making a valiant effort to convince me to take this specific fitness certification with him for months. One day, after reading Voss’s book, he finally had me where he wanted me. The conversation went something like this:
Ren: Why don’t you want to take this climbing class?
Me: I don’t want to pay for it
Ren: So you just want to boulder forever?
Me: Not really, I’m just not ready to take it yet
Ren: Do you think you won’t enjoy it?
Me: No I think I would, I’m just not ready for it yet
Ren: What makes you think you’re not ready?
Me: I just don’t feel like a strong enough rock climber
Ren: You’re pretty good at (x,y,z), I think you could do it. How come you think you’re skills don’t transfer over?
Me: Well they do, but I just don’t know enough about it
Ren: That’s fair, well I’m signing up, too bad, you’re probably going to miss out
Me: Fuck it, sign me up too!!!!
Ren 1, me 0. I’ll give credit where it’s due.
It’s easy to notice that Ren continued to ask me questions to better understand why I didn’t want to take this class with him. He could have hit me with clear, hard cold logic, but instead he got me talking to better learn my motivations, desires, fears, etc. See: strategy number 1.
One of the main goals, if not the most important objective, of any negotiation revolves around information extraction. Here’s Voss:
“Your goal at the outset is to extract and observe as much information as possible. Which, by the way, is one of the reasons that really smart people often have trouble being negotiators — they’re so smart they think they don’t have anything to discover.”
The key here: recognize that you most likely have no idea the motivations of your counterpart. They have an agenda you know nothing about, so the only way to learn is to simply ask questions.
You can also see here that Ren subtly snuck in another key strategy well-known in psychology circles: loss aversion. He made me feel like I had something to lose (taking the class without me, where I would lose out on doing the class with him plus quality friend time). Voss borrows again from Kahneman here, noting that people fear loss more than they desire gain, going as far to say that,
“The party who feels they have more to lose and are the most afraid of that loss has less leverage, and vice versa. To get leverage, you have to persuade your counterpart that they have something real to lose if the deal falls through.”
If you can incorporate loss aversion into your questioning, do it.
Voss also connects asking questions to allowing your counterpart to feel in control, when in fact you sit in the driver’s seat. In particular, Voss hypes up the “how” question, saying that,
“‘how’ engages because ‘how’ asks for help.”
When you find yourself helping someone else, you naturally feel in control. You have information they don’t. You have expertise they don’t. You feel powerful and useful. And that’s exactly the point. This goes back to discovery, where Voss suggests,
“[asking] calibrated questions that start with the words “How” or “What.” By implicitly asking the other party for help, these questions will give your counterpart an illusion of control and will inspire them to speak at length, revealing important information.”
How am I supposed to do that?
I see you know quite a bit about this — how can I do something similar?
How can I do x for you when I don’t have y?
How are you able to help me in this situation?
Buy time with these questions, learn your counterpart’s strategy, evoke feelings of control, and use that period of discovery to your advantage.
I could go on and on about all of the other specific strategies Voss laid out, but to me, these two strategies, creating empathy and asking questions, permeated all of the other strategies and accounted for 80% of the work needed to start learning how to become a better negotiator.
To wrap up, there are a few important yet common traps to avoid during a negotiation.
- Slow down.
“Slow. It. Down. Going too fast is one of the mistakes all negotiators are prone to making. If we’re too much in a hurry, people can feel as if they’re not being heard. You risk undermining the rapport and trust you’ve built.”
Again, you can’t appeal to people’s emotions if they don’t feel like you care about them.
2. Compromise, but not too much.
“Of course, as we’ve noted previously, you need to keep the cooperative, rapport-building, empathetic approach, the kind that creates a dynamic in which deals can be made. But you have to get rid of that naïveté. Because compromise — ‘splitting the difference’ — can lead to terrible outcomes. Compromise is often a ‘bad deal.’”
Here, Voss means that trying to compromise on an outcome where both parties feel unsatisfied is worse than no deal. A simple example: your parents want you to visit home, but you have a lot of work to do. You feel bad so you pay for a train and go for the day but feel rushed and stressed the whole time. Trying to make a compromise there made both you and your parents worse off, rather than negotiation to visit at a different time. Which leads me to:
3. Embrace the hard stuff.
Getting what you want doesn’t happen just because you want it. Here’s Voss:
“Creative solutions are almost always preceded by some degree of risk, annoyance, confusion, and conflict. Accommodation and compromise produce none of that. You’ve got to embrace the hard stuff. That’s where the great deals are. And that’s what great negotiators do.”