What negotiation skills lead to optimal negotiated agreements and are suitable for win-win negotiations? One skill to cultivate that will have a positive impact on your future negotiation style is active listening. Few negotiators would argue the value of good listening skills. Skillful active listening can calm tensions, break the impasse, and get you the information you need to build creative deals. Yet most people overestimate their ability to deploy this key negotiation skill, while also lacking an accurate understanding of the concept of active listening.
Three Listening Skills for Successful Negotiations
Contrary to popular belief, active listening doesn’t mean sitting patiently while your counterpart talks. Nor does it simply entail saying “I understand” or establishing good eye contact. Rather, active listening is a dynamic process that can be broken down into three different behaviors: paraphrasing, inquiry, and acknowledgment.
Negotiation example in real life: Suppose you’re a supplier of a state-of-the-art component for a new medical imaging device. You submit a written sales proposal to the manufacturer.
At your initial meeting with the buyer’s rep, she asserts: “Your proposal doesn’t give us the assurances we need that you can ramp up production if demand skyrockets. Frankly, your price per unit is unacceptable. We think you have a terrific product, but if you’re not going to work with us, we’re prepared to find someone who will.”
Here’s how you might respond using characteristics of negotiation styles incorporating active listening:
- Paraphrase: “It sounds as if you’re satisfied with our component overall. But if I understand correctly, you need me to assure you that we can increase production if large orders come in. You’re also concerned about our proposed per-unit price and our willingness to work with you to create an acceptable arrangement. Have I captured your main points?”
- Inquire: “You mentioned that you found our proposed price to be unacceptable. Help me understand how you came to this conclusion. Let’s also talk about how we might set up a pricing structure that you find more reasonable.”
- Acknowledge: “It sounds as if you’re quite disappointed with various elements of our proposal, so much so that you have serious concerns about whether we’ll be able to work together over the long haul.”
The skillful negotiator orchestrates these aspects of active listening to draw out the other party’s concerns and feelings, with an eye toward asserting his own viewpoint and engaging in joint problem-solving.
Adapted from “Listen Up! Your Talks May Depend on It,” by Robert C. Bordone (Senior Fellow, Harvard Law School), first published in the Negotiation newsletter.