Creating Value in Negotiations through Word Choice

When it comes to creating value in negotiations, we would all be wise to pay closer attention to the words we use—as well as those we don’t use, recent research and news stories suggest.

By — on / Negotiation Skills

creating value in negotiation

When the delegates from the Group of 20—the world’s 20 largest economies, or G20—met in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in December 2018 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 when it came to creating value in negotiations.

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 imports from China and other G20 nations. China, meanwhile, which has been accused of violating the intellectual property rights of other nations, objected to references to fair trade practices, according to delegates.

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.

Claim your FREE copy: Negotiation Skills

Build powerful negotiation skills and become a better dealmaker and leader. Download our FREE special report, Negotiation Skills: Negotiation Strategies and Negotiation Techniques to Help You Become a Better Negotiator, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

As this story illustrates, among the many negotiating techniques and skills available for creating value in negotiations, we can work toward choosing our words more carefully. Try to identify taboo words, and avoid them when possible, even as you negotiate the substance behind them.

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 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.

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 later, 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, focus on creating value in negotiations by redefining the term rather than rejecting it outright.

Beware Linguistic Mimicry

Researchers who study how body language affects negotiation have found that when conversational partners mimic each other’s body language, they’re likely deeply engaged in the exchange. Given such fundamental aspects of negotiation, we might assume 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. They looked at the participants’ use of seemingly innocuous parts of speech that have been found to reveal 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.

So, when professional negotiators use the same verbal tics, it could be a sign that they need to work harder at creating value in negotiations.

Do you have any tips on creating value in negotiations through word choice?

The Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School
501 Pound Hall
1563 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138
tel 1-800-391-8629
tel (if calling from outside the U.S.) +1-301-528-2676
fax 617-495-7818