In business negotiation, get your words’ worth

Subtle differences in language choice can have a big impact on negotiated outcomes.

By on / International Negotiation

Wise negotiators put a lot of time and effort into making sure they’re ready to do business. They set ambitious goals, research their bottom line, explore their alternatives, and find out as much as they can about their counterpart. They may give less consideration, however, to the words they’ll use to persuade, question, debate, and brainstorm at the table.

Given the improvisatory nature of negotiations—we never quite know what our counterpart will say next—it may seem pointless to think about word choice. Yet recent research and news stories stress that we can enhance our odds of getting a great deal by adhering to a few simple linguistic guidelines.

Try a “gain frame”

Imagine you have decided to sell your car. After doing some research, you decide to ask for $5,000 with the
goal of accepting no less than $4,500. When meeting with a prospective buyer, which of the following offers do you think you should make?„

  • “I’m asking $5,000 for the car.”
  • “I can give you the car for $5,000.”

The monetary offer is the same in both sentences, but the offers are framed differently: Option A highlights the resource you’re requesting (money), while Option B highlights the resource you’re offering (the car). Expressed differently, Option A focuses on taking something from the buyer, and Option B focuses on giving something to the buyer.

The difference may seem subtle, but it’s a difference that matters, Leuphana University professor Roman Trötschel and his colleagues found in a 2015 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Across numerous experiments, the researchers paired up participants to engage in a negotiation. Whether playing the role of buyer or seller, when a participant offered a resource, his or her counterpart made greater concessions than when the participant asked for a resource—even though the offers were objectively identical.

The effect was even found among children exchanging trading cards: When fourth graders offered to give something (for example, “I’ll give you four of my cards for five of your cards”), their partners made greater concessions than when the children asked to take something (e.g., “I’ll take five of your cards for four of my cards”).

Due to irrational “loss aversion,” or the common human tendency to prefer to avoid a loss over acquiring an equivalent gain, framing an offer in terms of what your counterpart would gain is likely to get you a better deal than framing the offer in terms of what he has to lose.

Avoid “taboo” words

When the delegates from the Group of 20—the world’s 20 largest economies, or G20—met in Buenos Aires, Argentina, this past December to negotiate reforms to the global trading system, the words they didn’t use turned out to be just as important as the ones they did.

With the United States and China embroiled in an escalating trade dispute, delegates were warned to stay away from certain sensitive terms, the New York Times reports. Protectionism, for example, was off-limits because it had been used to criticize U.S. president Donald Trump for the tariffs he imposed on Chinese goods and on other G20 nations’ steel and aluminum imports. China, meanwhile, which has been accused of violating the intellectual property rights of other G20 nations, among other accusations, objected to references to fair trade practices, according to delegates.

“A number of words that we used to have always in G7 and G20 summit communiques became kind of taboos,” a European official told the Times. “We have American taboos and Chinese taboos.” In part by avoiding these taboo words, delegates were able to negotiate a communique that pledged to reform the World Trade Organization, a widely shared goal.

It’s not unusual for negotiators to bristle at hot-button terms, especially ones they view as critical of their views and behavior. Try to identify such taboo words, and avoid them when possible, even as you negotiate the substance behind them—for example, negotiating intellectual property rights without referencing the umbrella of fair trade practices.

Negotiate disadvantageous terms

What should you do when a counterpart uses a word or term that seems unworkable to you? Take the case of the recent North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) renegotiations among Canada, Mexico, and the United States. In October 2017, U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer made a controversial proposal requiring that half the content of cars built in North America come from the United States. Canada and Mexico considered the proposal to be incompatible with NAFTA’s goal of integrating the continent.

When the delegates from the Group of 20—the world’s 20 largest economies, or G20—met in Buenos Aires, Argentina, this past Decemberto negotiate reforms to the global trading system, the words they didn’t use turned out to be just as important as the ones they did.

What to do? A Canadian trade bureaucrat charged with troubleshooting the issue proposed changing the criteria for what counts as “North American content” to emphasize high-value input, such as software, according to the Wall Street Journal. The change would boost production in either the United States or Canada, where software development is more common than it is in Mexico. The revised criteria appeared to meet the spirit of Lighthizer’s proposal without explicitly giving the United States an advantage.

Two months after the Canadian team pitched the idea, the American team presented a counterproposal that would require a certain percentage of cars produced in North America to be made with high-wage labor, which would exclude Mexico unless wages rose there. Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, viewed the offer as an opportunity to boost the wages of Mexican autoworkers and got behind the plan. The United States and Mexico reached agreement on that and other issues in August, and Canada signed on in September.

The lesson: If you don’t like the way a counterpart is defining a term, see if you can redefine it rather than reject it outright.

Beware linguistic mimicry

When conversational partners mimic each other’s body language, it can be a sign that they’re deeply engaged in the exchange. We might assume, therefore, that the more closely negotiating partners’ linguistic styles match up, the better their bargaining outcomes will be. However, research by Texas Tech University professor Molly Ireland and University of Texas professor Marlone Henderson published in the journal Negotiation and Conflict Management Research and discussed in Discover magazine tells a more complex story.

Ireland and Henderson analyzed transcripts of typed instant messages between study participants playing
the role of coworkers negotiating travel plans for a business trip. Specifically, they looked at the participants’ use of seemingly innocuous parts of speech that have been found to be the most revealing of people’s underlying psychology: personal pronouns (such as I or we), impersonal pronouns (it and that), articles (a, an, or the), and contractions (don’t versus do not). Contrary to intuition, the researchers found that the more participants’ linguistic styles synced up, the less likely they were to reach agreement.

Why? The answer came when Ireland analyzed the degree to which the participants used travel words, such as car, hotel, and train—that is, words related to the negotiation task. Interestingly, the more they used such words, the less their linguistic styles matched. It seems that the time they spent tuning in to each other’s thoughts and emotions distracted them from the task at hand.

In other research, Ireland found that speed daters were more likely to pair up—and dating couples were more likely to be together after several months—when their linguistic styles closely matched. Therefore, in relationship-oriented interactions and negotiations, linguistic mimicry can be an asset. But in business contexts, such matching can be an indication of lack of focus.

Linguistic matching can be very difficult to detect because it relies on unobtrusive parts of speech. But if you do notice that you and your counterpart are using the same verbal tics, it could be a sign you need to get back on track.

Of skunks and men

Negotiators often describe the bargaining process in metaphorical terms—as a “game,” a “dance,” a “therapy session,” or a “love fest,” for example. A fitting, appropriately timed metaphor can effectively convey to counterparts and interested observers how we view the negotiation and even reframe it to our advantage.

On December 11, 2018, Nancy Pelosi, then minority leader of the House of Representatives, uttered what is likely one of the most unusual and arresting metaphors ever used to describe a negotiation: “It goes to show you: You get into a tinkle contest with a skunk, you get tinkle all over you.” She was describing to Democratic colleagues the freewheeling televised negotiating session she and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer had just had with President Trump in the Oval Office regarding the possibility of a government shutdown over funding for a border wall with Mexico. Pelosi also described herself as the “mom” in the negotiation—an apt portrayal of her stern, no-nonsense, and unruffled performance.

By appearing to compare the president of the United States to a skunk, Pelosi fell well short of painting herself as a collaborative negotiating counterpart ready to do business. But Pelosi had another negotiation in mind: She needed to win a few more votes from her fellow Democrats in her run for House Speaker. In addition to offering perks to waffling Democrats, she likely won some votes by showing them she could go toe to toe with a president known for being combative and mercurial.

Vivid metaphors can enliven a negotiation and persuade your counterpart to see it in a new light. But before using one, think about whether it will truly advance the conversation—or backfire by causing offense.

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