Essentials of Successful Negotiation

Piles of books as high as the Eiffel Tower have been written about tricks and tactics you can use to “win” in a negotiation. Some of them come close to comparing the whole thing to a war, where any means are justified to “extract” or “push through” a “profitable” agreement.

Your run-of-the-mill self-help negotiation book has so little about general strategies because they are so common sense, really. They have adjusted, but not really changed since Plato and Aristotle. Remember those two? Classical! 😉

So today I would like to cast a different light on negotiation and remind you about a much neglected factor – i.e. the need to define the object of negotiation as clearly as possible from the very beginning, and to set a framework of objective criteria.  A recent debate I was having (quite informally) drove that point home with a vengeance.

Let me then start by DEFINING what I think successful negotiation means.  Ideally, a successful negotiation is a process in which there is give and take from both sides, and in which the parties eventually reach a win-win solution, that leaves them both satisfied and willing to cooperate in the future.  (I don’t think we should glorify bellicose attitudes in negotiations, because a partner who leaves the table feeling “squeezed”, crushed or with their hands tied behind their backs will not be a trustworthy, cooperative long-term partner. )

People who take part in negotiations don’t use only “factual” reasoning. They also act out of their complex private and public selves.  Emotions, convictions, likes and dislikes, status in the relationship, even moods all play a part in the way the negotiation turns out.

Sometimes we are trying to negotiate interests only to find hardcore advocates of obsessive positions across the table. In this case, it helps a lot to establish very clearly what we are talking about and with respect to what, in other words, to define what is and isn’t relevant for the current negotiation. 

A positive relationship is essential for a successful negotiation, because social acceptance and a sense of belonging are basic human needs. So is the need for clarity and autonomy, or boundaries.

When a counterpart dashes off into a diatribe that is only remotely related to the debate at hand, we can always use meta-communication (communication about the way they are communicating), paraphrasing or questions to bring them back to the actual topic we had defined.

In fact, questions, paraphrasing and metacommunication are the three most important communication strategies for a successful negotiation. 

Let’s say, in my case, that we are debating what type of institutions are better for a nation’s prosperity and progress. Let’s say I support the thesis that democratic, ethical and inclusive institutions are better. Examples of (say) Western vs. Ottoman institutions are offered as an argument in favor of that point.  The counterpart, who has an anti-western agenda, ventures into a vitriolic attack on Western countries who always consider themselves superior but who got where they are economically through predaceous colonialism and brutality.

The experienced negotiator will recognize that this is an entirely new thesis which has nothing or very little to do with the topic at hand. He might allow the person to finish the argument, but not get dragged into it, because trying to dispute emotional arguments unrelated to your negotiation will 1. bring you nothing (emotional convictions are almost impossible to overturn) and 2. will distract and derail from the actual object of negotiation, using up time and energy with no tangible result other than statistics and history books being thrown at each other.

So, what might the experienced negotiator do? After the person has finished their point, he might use paraphrasing to make the counterpart feel heard, understood and esteemed. But then he will continue by calling into question the relevance of the counterpart’s discourse. “I understand your position on colonialism, and I am partly in agreement. But that is not the topic here today. We are not discussing how the Western countries got rich, but whether democratic, inclusive institutions (such as those found today in the West) are better at serving the interests of a larger majority of the population. Can we agree that that was the subject?”


“So, you are saying you don’t believe Western institutions are better because they are somehow founded on theft and slavery. But here we are talking about current-day institutions, which have evolved to be inclusive, democratic and serve every citizen.”

The counterpart might retort emotionally, “No, because Western nations to this day use non-Western slaves who come here to work for them and do the dirty work for them.”

Again, questions come in handy: “What exactly is your definition of slave? Can we agree that a person who enters a work relationship of their own accord cannot be considered a slave?”

“Yes, but these people don’t really enter of their own accord, because they are pushed by poverty to emigrate and to accept terrible conditions.”

“So then you do agree that the system in their country of origin has failed them, that their institutions, their economy, their justice system have all failed them, that those institutions were not able to guarantee their prosperity and dignity.”

Now, I am not selling you winning recipes, these are questions and arguments made up on the fly. Either party might eventually prevail. I am only trying to emphasize the benefits of keeping cool, using questions, paraphrasing, gaining some time and narrowing the discussion to the really relevant arguments.

In another twist of events, the counterpart might then try to get all philosophical about what “better” really means. Again, I can’t stress enough how important defining the framework really is. “Well, I believe we can both agree that good has many meanings. On a metaphysical level, I see what you are saying. But here we are discussing the practical and pragmatic aspects of the proper functioning of institutions as opposed to corruption and arbitrariness.”  Etc.

A lot of misunderstandings, distraction, annoyances and false arguments can be avoided and countered by clearly defining and delineating the object of negotiation.

I hope I have been able to convince you that, before starting the negotiation, it is essential to:

– determine the time frame, so that both parties know what is the horizon for reaching an agreement,

– determine up front the object of the negotiation and the negotiation criteria (price, quantity, delivery terms, etc.), as well as the structure of the negotiation, the rules and, if applicable, the roles (see below),

– determine that the participants really do have the capacity to decide and to sign the agreement, in order to safeguard the results and avoid procrastination tactics.

I also hope we’re in agreement that negotiation is a fascinating process. And there’s many more insights where these ones came from.  😉




One thought on “Essentials of Successful Negotiation

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