Adapted from “Overcoming Stage Fright: How to Prepare for a Negotiation,” by Michael Wheeler (Professor, Harvard Business School), first published in the Negotiation newsletter.
Many negotiators grow anxious as they approach the bargaining table, a reaction that puts them in good company with other distinguished professionals. Laurence Olivier’s stage fright almost ended his acting career. Even after winning nine NBA titles in a row, basketball great Bill Russell still got sick before every game. Few negotiators suffer to this degree, yet even veterans admit to queasiness and butterflies as they anticipate the first moments of the process.
The beginning steps in negotiation are all the more daunting because their consequences often are unforeseeable. Openings feel momentous because they require us to commit to some actions and forgo others. Should we be open and friendly at the outset, or should we be more firm and detached?
Unfortunately, we cannot maintain all of our options. But three practices can temper our discomfort at closing off options:
1. Come equipped with a safety net. Good negotiators approach the bargaining table with their best alternative to a negotiated agreement— BATNA—already in place. A strong walk-away alternative will not only strengthen your bargaining power, but it also will help put you at ease.
2. Be prepared. That means knowing the substance of the transaction, of course, but it also means recognizing that you’ll need to be open to discoveries about the contours of a possible deal and the people you’ll be dealing with. Think of the preparation as putting together a jigsaw puzzle: the pieces you have in hand tell you something about its overall pattern.
3. Practice “recovery routines.” This way you’re ready for surprises, pleasant or otherwise. Don’t worry about having a snappy comeback for caustic comments; glibness may win the verbal battle but lose the problem-solving war. Instead, in a neutral tone, repeat what the other person just said to give her ownership of the remark. Likewise, if you’ve put your foot in your mouth, apologize quickly. Buying a little time can lower tensions and reduce anxiety.