Negotiate How You’ll Negotiate

By — on / Negotiation Skills

When a negotiation ends, our satisfaction with the final outcome doesn’t depend solely on how much we objectively gained or lost, according to research by Jared Curhan and Hen Xu of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Hillary Anger Elfenbein of the University of California at Berkeley. In fact, negotiator satisfaction hinges on four factors: our measurable gains and losses, how the negotiation made us feel about ourselves, whether the negotiation process was collegial and fair, and whether we developed a productive working relationship with our counterparts.

One lesson from these findings for negotiators? To maximize satisfaction and build a strong working relationship, don’t leave the negotiation process up to chance. Instead, take time to discuss how you will negotiate before discussing substance.

Here are just three of the questions you might ask and answer together about the negotiation that lies ahead.

1. Who will be at the negotiating table? Aside from the principal parties you have already identified, is there anyone else who should be present at your talks? Are lawyers, assistants, or other experts invited to attend? If you are negotiating in teams, who will be present on each side and what role will each person play at the table?

When you jointly decide who will be present at your first official meeting, you avoid unpleasant surprises. For complex talks you might also consider setting up smaller working groups or subcommittees to tackle specific issues. In the case of the teams discussing a possible merger of their companies, one group might be assigned to prepare to deal with the companies’ labor unions, another might be in charge of assessing technology issues, and so on.

2. Where will we negotiate? Don’t assume that the other side will be coming to you or vice versa; your counterpart may have an entirely different idea than you do about where you should negotiate.

Negotiating on your home court can bring a decided advantage, as it allows you to control the environment and feel at ease. But traveling to the other party’s turf can communicate that you are serious about making a deal, notes professor Jeswald W. Salacuse of Tufts University, and also gives you opportunities to observe your counterpart in his surroundings. You might also choose to negotiate on neutral territory (such as a hotel conference room) or remotely via email or telephone.

If you have a preference regarding the location or communication mode of your negotiation, prepare to make a case that will appeal to the other side’s interests and possible concerns. Otherwise, talk through the pros and cons of your possible meeting locations together. Keep in mind that conceding to your counterpart on relatively minor process issues, such as where to meet, builds trust and goodwill that may come in handy later.

3. What ethical standards will guide us? Most negotiators enter talks with the intention of being fair and just. Yet people often have different standards of fairness, depending on their perspective. Moreover, we sometimes unintentionally violate our own moral code – for example, by justifying unethical behavior or imitating the bad behavior of others.

In one recent study, Lisa L. Shu and Max H. Bazerman of Harvard Business School and Francesca Gino of the University of North Carolina found that asking college students to sign a university honor code before they solved a series of math problems reduced cheating significantly. Even if you and your counterpart don’t sign a formal honor code, expressing your intention to behave fairly and honestly throughout the negotiation will bring ethical concerns to the surface. This in turn could inspire all involved to be especially vigilant about their manner of decision making.


Adapted from “Start Your Talks Off On the Right Foot,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter, September 2009.

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