The prospect of improving your negotiation skills can be so overwhelming that we often delay taking the necessary steps we can follow to improve, such as taking time to prepare thoroughly. The following five guidelines will help you break this daunting task into a series of manageable—and often essential—strategies.
1. Recognize the power of thorough preparation.
We all know we’re supposed to prepare thoroughly to negotiate, but we often fail to follow through on our best intentions. That’s a significant problem: Research overwhelmingly shows that underprepared negotiators make unnecessary concessions, overlook sources of value, and walk away from beneficial agreements. In all likelihood, the single most valuable step you could take to improve your negotiation skills is to prepare thoroughly for important talks. That might mean setting aside a set number of hours every day to do your research and homework, creating a negotiation checklist of tasks to complete, enlisting a negotiation coach to help you (see point 5 below), and role-playing the negotiation with a trusted friend, family member, or colleague. As part of your negotiation research, determine your best alternative to a negotiated agreement, or BATNA (what you will do if the current negotiation falls through), and do your best to determine your counterpart’s BATNA, as well.
2. Take a proactive approach to negotiation training.
If you opt to try improving your negotiation skills through a formal training program, avoid the pitfall of passively recording the key points made by your instructor. Beyond note taking, think about how these concepts relate to your own negotiations. How do the theories presented apply to your practice? If you’re not following the real-world implications of an idea, ask for clarification or a concrete example. In addition, Harvard Business School professor Max H. Bazerman advises negotiation trainees to listen carefully for repetition of concepts across the entire program. We learn better when we have the opportunity to abstract similar lessons from two or more experiences, researchers have found. For this reason, proactive students perk up when concepts are presented more than once—and are more likely than others to retain this information over time.
3. Be ready to make mistakes.
Negotiation training can be a humbling enterprise. Instructors often have their students participate in role-play simulations that have been designed at least in part to expose flaws in their thinking, such as the tendency to be overconfident. Students often feel threatened and defensive when they recognize that they have been making decisions based on faulty intuition, according to Bazerman. Yet such behavior does not reflect a personal shortcoming. Feeling uncomfortable with elements of our behavior is a necessary step on the journey to improving your negotiation skills, according to psychologist Kurt Lewin, who developed an influential model of change. When you can accept that virtually all of us are susceptible to judgment biases that color our decisions in negotiation, you will be in a good position to adopt better patterns of thinking that you can apply to your own negotiations, says Bazerman.
4. Practice, practice, practice.
Developing new ideas into strategies that become intuitive requires practice and time, writes Bazerman in the Negotiation Briefings newsletter. Negotiation training and study allows us to practice concepts, but the process of change is not complete when the training ends. As you prepare to transfer newly acquired negotiation skills to the workplace, you need to maintain a sense of vigilance. Reflect on what you have learned. Think about which concepts you would like to apply most assiduously to your negotiations and actively practice them, both at work and at home. Try out new negotiation skills and strategies with friends and family, who are likely to be forgiving of your mistakes. “If you consciously use your new strategies in multiple applications, they will slowly become second nature, taking the place of old patterns,” according to Bazerman.
5. Find a good negotiation coach.
When you’re facing an important negotiation, chances are, there’s someone in your organization who you can turn to for top-notch advice. Rather than simply telling you what to do in a particular situation, effective negotiation coaches focus on improving your negotiation skills. Such top negotiators are well versed in an explicit theory of negotiation (such as the mutual-gains approach taught at the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School) that allows them to explain and predict what will and won’t work, according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Lawrence Susskind. Look for a negotiation coach who can help you set goals, figure out what techniques to try, and understand what happened after the fact. According to Susskind, a good negotiation coach (1) offers advice that’s consistent with their own negotiation behavior, (2) stresses the importance of preparation, (3) rehearses new negotiation skills, and (4) debriefs the final results.
What do you think is the best approach to improving your negotiation skills? Let us know in the comments.