The Art of Negotiating

Negotiating is a method of reaching a compromise settlement. As a project leader, you may find yourself in the middle, playing go-between in negotiations to end conflicts. Be fair, listen to each side, make sure both sides walk away with something of value — including their pride — and don't be hasty in making a judgment. But being the middle person is no fun. The art of negotiating goes a lot further than just that of arbitrator in a conflict.

Negotiating is a skill that will come into play at various stages of the project, and is useful in making numerous types of agreements with other parties. Many areas will require basic negotiating skills, some you may not even recognize. You may need to make special arrangements to have a key player join your team, or work out arrangements to have special speakers, hosts, or sponsors support your project. Then, of course, you have the standard negotiable issues: contracts, rates, and deadlines.

From the outset, you need to assess exactly what it is you want. If you are not clear in your ultimate objective, your negotiations may go off course in the middle and you could end up with nothing. While working toward your objective, you will have a series of end results that you want, ranging from the ideal to the very least that would be acceptable. If you were negotiating with management for additional employees to put on your team, you might consider an ideal number to be ten employees. However, you know you could do the job with six or seven if you absolutely had to, and would keep this in mind as you negotiate. For example, a team member may want to have one day a week to telecommute. Whether this person telecommutes one day may be inconsequential to you, but you might take that opportunity to ask the potential team member if he or she could be available once a month on Thursdays to stay late for important meetings with the sponsors. This can be an even exchange: the person works one day a week at home, and in return is willing to stay late one Thursday a month. After this simple agreement sets the tone of reasonable cooperation, you can get down to the nitty-gritty: hours and compensation.

Start by making reasonable offers. You do not request everything, nor do you offer everything. Give something the other side wants in exchange for something you want, and build from there. Starting with smaller points allows both parties to feel comfortable.

Look at the following tips for effective negotiating:

  • Concede on points that are low on your list of priorities in exchange for points that are high on your list of wants.

  • Save their top offer for your top priority. If a ball club trades away their best pitcher, it will become that much harder to acquire the other team's best hitter.

  • Keep in mind that things need not be exchanged one for one. If you have two lesser items that are not as significant to your needs and they have one biggie, consider trading two or three for one.

  • Don't offer too much up front — give yourself room to build. Not unlike a game of poker, you don't want to throw in all your money on the first wager.

  • If you win big, give back some concessions. It may be something of no great significance to you, but it's an act of good character and good business to say, “Listen, we really don't need this, why don't you keep it.” Next time you negotiate, this gesture may be remembered.

  • Do not be adversarial or put the other side on the defensive. When the other side talks, listen and work together in good faith to try to settle on something that makes both sides walk away from the table feeling good.

  • If things are not working out and neither side is happy, stop talking and take a break. Try again later, possibly with a neutral third party to break the stalemate.

  • Take time to think about offers before making a final decision. Let the other person know that you will get back to them promptly. Evaluate the offer and even get a second opinion or compare the offer to the rates of others. Then make and communicate your decision within the time frame that you set.

Effective negotiating will come up during crisis intervention and conflict management, but it will also come up throughout the entire project. In fact, negotiation is a good skill to have in life, and any combination of the above tactics will work for most situations. Give a little, get a little — that's what it's all about. Above all, have patience.

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