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Max Communication Skills During Negotiations – Strategies and Skills that Make a Difference

By Jenny Schuchert, IAITAM ITAK V8 I11

The Basics

The underlying skill that makes or breaks any negotiator is communication, both as a giver of information and a receiver of information.  Communicating during negotiations is not about delivering a speech, or using perfect grammar, or talking louder than anyone else.  It is the ability to truly listen and then present information back in a manner that will be understood.  Most professionals in IT Asset Management are good communicators because it is a primary job requirement.  However, even these individuals who are selected for their abilities have communication habits that may not be effective.  Also, professionals in a hectic environment may not be as deliberate about their communications as they would be in ideal circumstances.  A negotiation is that worst case scenario of a hectic, stressful and important activity.  A review of communication is a good idea for anyone conducting negotiations, even the informal kind done every day.

To improve communication skills, begin by analyzing the conversations of others and your own for basic communication skills.  The following table presents concepts on which to critique communication.

Skills for Speaking Skills for Listening
Speak to be understood Aggressively listen by focusing
Speak only with purpose, not to fill space Give confirmation that you heard and understood
Reflect and restate Do not interrupt
Be specific Allow empty air before speaking in order to formulate the reply rather than doing while listening
Speak about yourself, not the listener Provide eye contact
Use images Curb your emotions so that they do not interfere with listening
Request confirmation that you were understood Be aware of terms that might need to be clarified
Focus on their interests, but speak in terms of yourself

Effective communication is about listening as well as speaking.  In a conversation, we can only process a fraction of what we hear because our attention is diverted to preparing an instantaneous reply.  Even when listening, personal biases, internal distractions and external noises can interfere with comprehension.  And yet, hearing what the other side of the table is offering is critical to the deal and the ongoing relationship.

It takes practice to become aware of these basic skills and ongoing effort to change your natural tendencies.  The bonus from this effort is not only improved communication and negotiations but also the potential to adapt your communication in response to what is going on in the conversation.

Three Communication Strategies that Work

By honing communication skills, they become a tool and not a roadblock.  Like many of the decisions made by IT Asset Managers, negotiators have to consider overall goals and strategies while discussing with the details.  Communication skills help relate complicated ideas such as the goals more effectively.  For instance, when fact-finding, focus on the message being transmitted and overlook the personality of the sender, the tone of the message and basically put your own emotions aside in order to maximize information retrieval.  Suggestions for improving communications include:

Repetition:  Take advantage of the formal setting to apply structure to communications.  When you are speaking, ask the listener to repeat in their own words what you are saying.  This approach ensures that the communications are clear.  If repetition is not part of the communication process in the first session, introducing the tactic can seem awkward at first.  The other negotiator may react to the repetition of a specific point as a way to draw attention to that point.  If the request for repetition and use of it continues, it soon becomes clear that the tactic confirms understanding, adds value to the communication process and serves as a driver.

Since repetition tends to focus conversation and drives progress, the structure also sets the negotiator as an authority figure and improves control over the negotiations.  The control advantage is not lessened when repetition is used by both parties.

It is important to separate agreement from restatement.  In other words, you can repeat what the speaker is saying without agreeing to it.  There is no disadvantage from using repetition consistently throughout the negotiation.

Positive listening:  When listening to a speaker, use positive listening instead of negative listening.  Listen for items that support your goals.  Concentrate on those issues and move the conversation to your goals using those items.  People tend to listen for the negative elements (sources of disagreement), picking apart the items that do not match their agenda and goals.  Negative negotiating can stall the negotiations with discussions that might have been avoided.  With positive listening, the conversation remains focused on areas of mutual goal attainment, which increase the number of goals that can be accomplished in a session.  The negative items that are important to the other team still surface but can be dealt with later when you are prepared.

Use a scribe:  It is important for the negotiator to focus on the communication as it is occurring.  While taking notes are essential, another dedicated team member should assume the job of scribe.  The negotiator can check occasionally that the scribe is capturing the information.  The negotiator may refer to the scribe’s notes during the session as a strategy to ensure understanding.  It is best practice to verbally summarize each point discussed, both to serve as an ending for that discussion and to confirm the agreement.  After a point is summarized, the discussion should move immediately on to the next point.

Blocks to Communication

There are a number of common roadblocks to communication.  Some are unintentional, such as wavering attention, fatigue or the inability to put aside other matters outside of the negotiation.  When these occur, the negotiator may choose to take a break or even end a session rather than allow the session to continue without momentum.

Since time is always a factor in negotiations, the negotiator should consider the source of the drop in momentum before ending a session.  Below are three common sources, with the repeat-back tactic applied for that situation as one possible solution strategy:

Source Tactic
The listener is not
listening
Introduce the repeat back approach, if not already in use.  It is very difficult to repeat back accurately if not paying attention.  The point is not to embarrass the individual, but to reenergize the discussion.
The speaker is just talking This is often referred to as stalling and refers to conversation about anything but the goal that is on the table.  The speaker may be trying to avoid that particular point, adjust the balance of power and control in the room, or give someone on their team time to work on a response without formally requesting time, with the intention of not letting the other team realize that they were unprepared.  If you are repeating everything back to them, they will realize that you know they are stalling – and also, if you do not recognize the fact that they are stalling, repeating back helps identify when things are off-track.
Miscommunication of information If you repeat everything back to the speaker In your own words, miscommunication may be avoided.  If the situation stills exists, look for terminology that needs to be clarified or some other missing piece of information that is hampering understanding.  You may need to stop and build definitions or educate the other team.

Uncovering Mutual Benefits

Initially, the negotiator may only be aware of some of the other party’s requirements through the RFP (Request for Proposal) process, pre-negotiation discussions and agenda submissions. The most effective way to improve knowledge about the other side’s requirements is to ask.  In the scope of creating a working relationship, both parties should be willing to discuss requirements, although not necessarily the details.

During the negotiations, the parties form an understanding of each other’s positions and the interests behind those positions.  This stage identifies mutually compatible interests.  Identifying areas with potential for mutual benefit is an essential skill in this stage of negotiation.  There are several techniques for attempting to identify the other party’s negotiating interests and the potential for mutual benefit from satisfying these interests.  These techniques include:

  • Empathize with the other party to gain insight into the issues from both sides
  • Ask questions that demonstrate interest in the other party’s position
  • Consider reasons why the other party is not agreeing to a particular position
  • Analyze the short and long-term consequences of agreement to that position

Areas of potential mutual interest should then be explored together, with both parties generating options that might work and putting these on the table for discussion.

The Power of Focused Questioning

Although much of the communication during a negotiation is in the form of declarative sentences, questions play a large part in the information gathering that drives agreement.  Questions are asked for many reasons during a negotiation, such as to:

  • Gain information
  • Clarify a point
  • Propose an agreement
  • Uncover a negotiator’s style

Little training is given on how to effectively pose a question.  Even experienced negotiators often fail to develop a questioning plan or strategy prior to entering into discussions.  As a result, the questioning process becomes diffused and haphazard.

Instead, consider developing a strategic plan for questioning.  Questions have a priority and a sequence that builds towards a resolution.  The sequence often begins with questions to help clarify the understanding of a position, followed by an exploration of the issues surrounding the position.  Questions can next expose the choices from the other team’s perspective and conclude with their remarks on your position.  It may be relevant to identify a specific person who should answer the question. This person is the target and the negotiator can fashion the question specifically for an individual’s style or to their interest in order to receive the best response.

Questions that are open-ended are the best choice when attempting to gather information and to keep the flow of the conversation going in a particular direction.  Close-ended questions that are typically answered with a short answer are best for decisions or to terminate a topic.  Since close-ended questions can be answered with a yes or no, these questions do not encourage the target to think or expand on their answers.

The most powerful of open-ended questions generally start with who, what, where, when or how.  These questions press the target to not only answer but to enlarge on that answer.  In addition to simply asking open-ended questions, effective negotiators often phrase the question so that the reply is a positive response. Instead of “Why won’t your company support this product?” the question is presented as “What strategy do you recommend for supporting this product?” The first question puts the target on the defensive.  The second question builds a cooperative or problem solving atmosphere that is respectful and leads to agreement.

Control of the negotiation process begins with an agenda that meets your needs and an opening discussion on those goals.   Success is gauged by making significant progress towards those goals.  Control does not imply that the other side of the table does not also have some control, putting their issues into the agenda and providing their perspective on your goals.  A one-sided agenda and discussion is likely to be a failure, especially in IT where long-term relationships with multiple purchases are common.  While the negotiator ensures that the agenda follows specific criteria, there should also some inclusion of the counterpart’s topics.

Final Thoughts

Effective negotiators do not persuade or direct the discussion solely for the sake of control.  Instead, they listen effectively to identify motivators, present their own goals in a reasonable manner and ultimately bring about a mutually beneficial agreement.

Since everything we do involves communication AND IT Asset Managers are generally good communicators, the improvement of communication skills does not receive the mind-share that it should.  Whether negotiating in a formal setting or managing a meeting, assessing communication skills and developing plans is an excellent way to improve performance.

About Jenny Schuchert