Adapted from “The Crucial First Five Minutes,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter, October 2007.
Your designated meeting place can have a critical impact on talks. When you don’t have a choice about where to meet, be aware that situational factors may color your judgment. For instance, the visual cues of a car lot—flashy banners, cheerful sellers, hesitant shoppers—frame a negotiation as a contest, Kimberlyn Leary (Harvard Medical School professor) and Michael Wheeler (Harvard Business School class of 1952 professor of management practice) have noted. But when norms of behavior are less obvious, as in a chance meeting between a potential seller and buyer at a café, negotiators might be more capable of viewing each other as unique individuals.
What about when you can choose between playing host and guest? Conventional wisdom touts the value of meeting on your home turf. After all, a familiar setting will put you at ease and could work to your advantage. But when you travel to your counterpart’s office, Tufts University professor Jeswald Salacuse points out, you convey a strong desire to make a deal. More importantly, negotiating at “their place” can give you valuable information about the other side. A neutral location, by contrast, is often the worst choice, as it closes off learning opportunities for both sides.
Other physical details are important, too. Sitting side by side rather than across the table from each other can inspire negotiators to take a problem-solving approach rather than a competitive one. Useful “props,” such as a laptop for quick calculations, also demonstrate your interest in doing business. And when Harvard Business School professor Max Bazerman taught negotiation to a group of Chevrolet dealership owners, as he writes in his book Smart Money Decisions (Wiley, 1999), they revealed that their most intimidating customers were the “clipboards”—prospective buyers who showed up at car lots holding clipboards crammed with pricing research.