You can’t script negotiation. Instead, you need a supple strategy you can adapt to the situation at hand. Opportunities pop up. So do obstacles. Power ebbs and flows. Talks that seem to crawl along can suddenly race forward or veer off in another direction.
After all, negotiation is a two-way street. Whoever you’re dealing with may be as smart and determined (or as fallible) as you are, and you can’t dictate their agendas, perceptions, or actions. So, you need to be both proactive and responsive, depending on how the interaction goes. For example, let’s suppose that you want to nail down a service contract with a new customer. What’s the first thing that you would say after the prospect welcomes you to her office (let alone the second or the third thing)? It all depends on how she starts the conversation. And she might open in different ways:
Version 1: “Hi Chris! We’re looking forward to partnering with you. Let’s figure out a deal that works well for both of us.”
Version 2: “Glad you could come, Chris. My colleagues have put you on the short list of possible providers for this contract.”
Version 3: “It’s time for you to fish or cut bait, Chris. We like your proposal, but you’ve got to come way down on price to beat your competition.”
These three statements express varying degrees of enthusiasm about working with you. And more fundamentally, they could reflect different bargaining styles. Each would require a tailored response on your part.
Good for you if you’re well prepared, having contemplated these alternatives in advance. But even if you did, you’d still want to hear the customer’s exact words and weigh what they really mean before replying yourself. The demand that you drop the price might sound like an obvious bluff, for example. Or the talk about “partnering” could ring false. And you won’t really know how you’ll feel at that moment—cautious or confident—until you’re really there. Only then will you have a better feel for whether you should be content with settling or should press for more.
Master negotiators understand the importance of agility. The late Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. diplomat who brokered peace in the former Yugoslavia, likened negotiation to jazz. “It’s improvisation on a theme,” he said. “You know where you want to go, but you don’t know how to get there. It’s nonlinear.”
But improvising is not making it up as you go along. Quite the opposite. Improvising requires deliberate learning, adapting, and influencing as you negotiate. You want to learn how much room there is for agreement (if any), and whether you can create opportunities for mutual gain. You’re also exploring how best to engage your counterpart: should you offer carrots or is this a case for brandishing a stick?
Having tentative answers to such questions is important before you start. Equally important, though, is treating them as assumptions that must be tested, refined, or perhaps discarded altogether. And the less you know, the more provisional your strategy must be. You’d better have a Plan B, in case things don’t pan out as you had hoped.
There’s a saying in the military that plans go out the window at first contact with the enemy. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the architect of the massive D-Day invasion in World War II, famously said, “Plans are worthless.” What’s often forgotten is that he added: “But planning is everything.” Rigorous planning involves assessing best and worst case scenarios. Doing so sharpens your subsequent vision for signs that things are going well or poorly, so you can stay on course or adjust accordingly.
The same is true in negotiation. A well-crafted plan highlights what you do not know, hence what you need to discover in the course of dealing with your counterpart. But there’s a catch once you’re negotiating: the steps you take to discover key information—the questions you ask, the demands you make, the offers you extend—can have unpredictable consequences. For example, you might make a concession as a gesture of good will in hopes that it will be reciprocated. If you’re right, the negotiation will go down one path. But if it’s instead read as sign of weakness, you’ll be headed in a very different direction. You have to be ready for both possibilities and be alert for which one is emerging.
Decision theorist Gary Klein stresses the important of having what he calls “strong ideas, weakly held” in his book Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making. If you have no notion of where you’re headed, you’ll wander blindly. By contrast, the more specific your assumptions are, the easier it will be to spot evidence that they are either right or wrong.
For negotiators, the danger lies in getting Klein’s advice upside down. UN diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, who mediated bloody conflicts around the world, stresses the importance of keeping an open mind and adapting to the situation. “Don’t ask reality to conform to your blueprint,” he told me, “but transform your blueprint to adapt to reality.”