Negotiation Blog

Are You Ready To Negotiate? 5 Steps To Take If You're Not

By Thomas Wood

What if you find yourself in a negotiation you're not prepared for?

At one of our workshops recently, a petroleum landman, who negotiates mineral and land rights, asked this question. Earlier that week he had received a phone call from a corporate executive with whom he eventually hoped to negotiate land leases.

He had begun his research, and knew some things about the land value, the corporate owner, and the executive. But when this executive called him out of the blue and started shooting out ideas, making offers, and using terms he didn't understand, the landman stumbled. He said that by the end of the call he had a sour taste in his mouth. The class came up with 5 powerful steps to turn lemon into lemonade.

Our client had found himself, unprepared, in the middle of a negotiation that he hadn't meant to start yet. He didn't know whether it was more important to try to capitalize on the moment, the enthusiasm, and the momentum, or whether to stall. He also wondered if the executive had purposely tried to catch him unprepared in order to gain an advantage. 

What would a master negotiator do?

There are certainly times and places for informal, impromptu bargaining. Much negotiation is accomplished at cocktail parties or business meals that are ostensibly social occasions, and in all bargaining learning to improvise is a key part of your skill-set as a negotiator.  

But improvised negotiations are an oxymoron, because they are the purposeful result of much planning. Improvised negotiations are for negotiators whose interests, positions, goals, and arguments are so familiar to them that they can talk about them spontaneously. In web designer blog "A List Apart" awhile ago, we ran across "Improvising in the Boardroom," which describes the advantages of improvising a presentation to a client if you really know your subject. "What you really bring to bear in the moment is not a rehearsed plan, but the sum total of your cumulative knowledge and experience to that point."

So when you find yourself in a negotiation or an exchange you're not prepared for, as in our landman's situation, or even something smaller in scale in the elevator or at a cocktail party, don't try to think on your feet.

Five steps you should take:

1) Stay calm. Thinking is short-circuited by anxiety. Deep breathing convinces your body and brain that it is calm and protects your cognitive ability.

2) Compliment the other party on his or her obvious expertise, and use this conversation as a chance to show respect and begin developing rapport.

3) Ask "dumb" questions (this is when "dumb is smart"). Say "clearly, you know a lot about this -- explain x to me." Change the nature of the phone call from a bargaining session to an information exchange, and take notes on answers that are useful to your process. Let them know you're taking notes, and repeat things back to them to slow the process down.

4) Buy yourself time. After a brief exchange that provides you information and builds rapport, get off the phone. Say "look, it's really great talking to you, you have some great ideas and I'm sure I'm going to learn a lot from you. I was about to head into another meeting when you called -- can I call you back?" Then do not pass go, do not collect $200, but go directly to your other meeting with yourself -- where you get back to preparing for the negotiation.

5) Prepare. Even if you have only five minutes, prepare the essentials.  Write down what you know about your and the other party's interests, likely opening offers and bottom lines, BATNAs and valuable concessions. Writing down the essentials forces you to think through your position and whether you are ready to bargain.

Negotiating Tip

Three easy ways to build trust: Listen as an ally, show sincere appreciation for your counterpart’s efforts, and make (but link) concessions.


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