Negotiation Skills: View Your Counterpart as an Agent

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Adapted from “View Your Counterpart as an Agent,” first published in the February 2009 issue of Negotiation.

Looking for yet another way to build your power at the negotiating table? Examine the incentives of your counterpart—and then consider whether they align with those of the group she represents.

In most business negotiations, notes Harvard professor Guhan Subramanian, your counterpart is acting as her organization’s representative, or agent (just as you’re acting as your organization’s agent). Her interests are thus unlikely to be perfectly aligned with those of her organization. A sales representative may be rewarded based solely on the sales volume she generates, yet her organization likely has other concerns, such as the quality of her decisions and her ability to manage relationships.

You can enhance your power by probing such agency issues.

Subramanian recommends that you ask yourself questions such as these before you negotiate:

– How is the negotiator across the table compensated?
– How long has she worked for her organization?
– What are her long-term career goals?

By differentiating your counterpart’s interests from those of her organization, you could find opportunities to enhance your power. If you learn that your counterpart is desperate to close a deal and move on to the next one, for instance, she may be willing to take a lower price than she has claimed.
Similarly, if you reach an impasse, you may be able to gain leverage by going over your counterpart’s head. “I’m not convinced that we’re taking all of your organization’s interests into account,” you might say to someone who’s haggling over a single issue. “I’d like to find out what your manager might add to the conversation.” This strategy is risky, as it could damage your relationship with your counterpart. But when all else fails, the mere suggestion of involving the other party’s boss could trigger immediate concessions.

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