Relationship-Building in Negotiation

Relationship-building in negotiation is critical but often overlooked. By following several key principles, you can forge business relationships that will thrive after the contract is signed.

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Relationship-Building in Negotiation

Forging close bonds typically helps negotiators reach better deals, work together effectively over time, and manage conflict—yet negotiators often rush through the process of relationship-building in negotiation. Here’s advice on how to approach this important aspect of negotiation more methodically.

Overcome Partisan Perceptions

An unconscious bias often gets in the way of relationship-building in negotiation: partisan perceptions, or the tendency to see our own side as more intelligent, skilled, reasonable, and moral than the other side. Partisan perceptions can cause us to expect the worst from our counterparts, especially those we don’t know well, write David Lax and James Sebenius in their book 3-D Negotiation: Powerful Tools to Change the Game in Your Most Important Deals.

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How can you lay the groundwork for a deep-rooted bond? Consider this anecdote from 3-D Negotiation. Late on a Friday afternoon, a senior partner in a law firm called a talented young associate into his office. The partner asked the associate to represent the plaintiff in upcoming settlement negotiations and, if necessary, a possible trial.

The young lawyer worked all weekend to prepare a compelling plaintiff’s brief. After reviewing the work on Monday morning, the partner praised the associate highly. Then he revealed that the firm would actually be representing the defendant in the case, not the plaintiff. “Now that you completely understand the other side’s viewpoint,” the senior lawyer told the associate, “we need you to prepare our side.” With this “trick,” the senior lawyer prepared his younger colleague to understand the other party and its interests, a critical step in overcoming partisan perceptions and relationship-building in negotiation.

You might try adapting the senior lawyer’s trick to your own negotiation preparation. You or your team could write up a detailed “brief” for both sides in an upcoming negotiation, being careful to explore the nuances of the other side’s perspective as fully as possible.

Getting to Know You

Some people rarely take time for relationship-building in negotiation, whether due to impatience or a sense that they would be wasting the other party’s time, writes Jeswald Salacuse in his book Negotiating Life: Secrets for Everyday Diplomacy and Deal Making. That’s usually a mistake, according to Salacuse. Effective negotiation requires the kind of mutual knowledge that can come only from asking questions and sharing information—and building relationships. There’s value in taking time to explore not only the other party’s interests and motives but also who they are as a person.

Years ago, during tense negotiations with the United States, Israeli prime minister Golda Meir expressed deep sympathy toward one of the U.S. negotiators, whose wife had recently died. Meir mentioned the pain she had felt upon the death of one of her family members. The brief conversation between the two negotiators established a relationship that dramatically improved the tenor of the negotiation, Salacuse writes. As this example illustrates, asking and telling sends an important message to the other side: You are interesting, important, and valued.

Confronting Conflict

Relationship-building in negotiation doesn’t end when a business transaction has been completed. “Once the contract is signed, we put it in the drawer,” executives have told Salacuse repeatedly. “After that, what matters most is the relationship between us and our partner, and we are negotiating that relationship all the time.”

Inevitably, problems arise in the life of a contract: Parties might realize that they neglected to stipulate a key term, leading to differing perceptions of what’s fair, or one side may come to believe that the other is failing to live up to the agreement. Learning how to navigate conflict becomes critical in leadership and decision-making.

In their book, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen explain that every tough conversation comprises three different overlapping conversations. Keep them in mind the next time you are working to get a relationship back on track:

  1. The “What happened?” conversation.

When disagreements arise in a business relationship, each side is likely to blame the other. But doing so prevents us from finding out what actually happened. So probe to learn what the other person’s intention was and then share your own. Instead of choosing which story is “right,” embrace them both.

  1. The “feelings” conversation.

It’s tempting to focus exclusively on solving a problem and ignore underlying emotions. But when left unaddressed, negative emotions tend to deepen conflict by blocking our ability to listen. Acknowledging your range of complex feelings can promote mutual understanding.

  1. The “identity” conversation.

Conflict can shake our sense of identity, causing us to question our competence and worth. It may help to think about which personal hot buttons the conflict is pushing, such as a fear of rejection or a sense of inadequacy. Consider the nuances of your self-image, recognize that everyone makes mistakes, and acknowledge your contributions to the problem.

What other advice do you have for relationship building in negotiation?

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