In our negotiations, we all regularly cope with counterparts who try too hard—such as salespeople who pester us with phone calls or show up at our office or home unannounced. Their desperation to reach a deal comes through loud and clear, making them seem not only annoying but also potentially ripe for exploitation. At the same time, we must also deal with those who don’t try hard enough, such as negotiators who seem to drop out of sight for long periods of time or appear indifferent to the prospect of reaching agreement. Portraying confidence in negotiation, but not too much, is a learned habit and sometimes it can be difficult to do so.
How can we ensure that we portray confidence in negotiation and come across as enthusiastic, not desperate, and rational but not aloof? To help you better manage others’ impressions in negotiation, we cover three essential steps, ranging from tactical to introspective.
3 methods for improving your confidence in negotiation
Negotiate roles in advance.
Work to ensure team members and superiors share a common view of the role each person will play in the negotiation.
Broaden your perspective.
Try to see beyond the current negotiation by developing alternatives, taking a long view of your career, and considering the other party’s needs.
Audit your blind spots.
Seek feedback about your negotiating behavior, and make a concerted effort to improve.
Now lets dig into them a little more deeply.
1. Negotiate roles in advance if you want to show more or less confidence in negotiation
It’s not unusual for the “big boss” to try to take control of high-stakes dealmaking and dispute resolution. But the presence of a CEO or other top leader at the negotiating table sends the following message, according to Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School professor Guhan Subramanian: “This deal must be so important to them that they had to bring in the big guns!” Such a message conveys to the other team that it can get much more out of the deal than anticipated.
To avoid seeming desperate to reach a deal, your organization should generally limit top bosses to forging connections and making introductions; leave it up to midlevel negotiating teams to work out the details. If necessary, you can involve top leaders on both sides to try to break an impasse or bring a deal in over the finish line—roles they couldn’t play if they were deeply immersed in day-to-day negotiations.
Of course, after negotiations commence, it can be awkward and even risky to try to rein in a boss who believes he or she should be closely involved. For this reason, be sure to include higher-ups in your team’s pre-negotiation strategy meetings. Discuss the hidden benefits of relying on them in an as-needed capacity. Then be sure to keep higher-ups apprised of your progress throughout the life of the negotiations and consult them for advice when necessary.
2. Broaden your perspective
When we feel desperate to reach a deal, it’s often because we see no other way out of a difficult predicament. By taking steps to view the negotiation at hand from a broader perspective, we can ease our fears and make a better impression on others.
The first, most obvious problem may be that your alternatives to the current negotiation are unappealing. The most obvious solution to a weak bargaining position is to do what you can to improve your best alternative to a negotiated agreement, or BATNA. That might mean looking for new negotiating partners and bargaining on multiple fronts, exploring ways to enhance the status quo, or making a plan for doing the deal at a future date when you or your side may feel more stable, whether financially or otherwise.
Second, desperation can also arise from the sense that there’s a lot riding on a deal: not just future business, but your long-term reputation, your work aspirations, or your organization’s financial health.
To improve your confidence in negotiation, try to resist the urge to view any particular deal as “make or break.” As much as it may feel that way in the moment, rarely is that the case. Over the course of your career as a negotiator, you will have plenty of successes and failures. You also will find ways to recover from what at first seem to be devastating setbacks. When you take the long view, you lessen your odds of sabotaging your negotiation with stressed-out decision making and desperate-seeming behavior.
Third, you may be able to put the negotiation in perspective by focusing more closely on the other side and not just yourself. What are the other side’s interests, priorities, and likely BATNA? Through such an analysis, you may recognize that the other side desires a deal with you just as much as you desire one with them.
If both of you have a weak BATNA, the good news is that there is a large zone of possible agreement, or ZOPA. The presence of a wide bargaining zone means that you should be able to work together to reach a value-creating deal, write Deepak Malhotra and Max H. Bazerman in their book Negotiation Genius: How to Overcome Obstacles and Achieve Brilliant Results at the Bargaining Table and Beyond (Bantam, 2007). When two or more parties need one another very much, they have a stronger motivation than most negotiators do to ensure that a deal is struck.
3. Audit your blind spots
We may think we strike an appropriate tone in our negotiations—enthusiastic but not ingratiating, levelheaded but not standoffish—but because it’s impossible to get outside our own heads, we can never fully know how we are coming across to others. Our true feelings, including our fears and anxieties, tend to leak out through our facial expressions, nonverbal behavior, and tone of voice, write Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen in their book Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (Viking, 2014). These fears also seep out through the decisions we make during a negotiation, such as calling someone three days in a row rather than giving him time to digest new information.
How can we become more aware of our “blind spots” in negotiation and take steps to address them?
First, we can ask those we trust, such as close colleagues and friends, to give us feedback about how we are coming across. Stone and Heen advise asking specifically about how we might be “getting in our own way”—that is, worrying about what others think might be holding us back from reaching our goals. To encourage honest feedback, try to respond with curiosity and appreciation.
Negotiators in positions of power may have particular difficulty listening to and absorbing feedback that challenges their habits and practices. Unfortunately, power can make us unrealistically confident in our abilities. As a leader, work to accept the fact that all of us can improve our negotiation skills throughout the life of our careers, and everyone can improve their confidence in negotiation, even if it means turning the dial down.
Second, to avoid the temptation to discount upsetting feedback, look for patterns that emerge from discussions with others. Suppose that you have been repeatedly told (or gotten the sense) that you come across as aloof in business interactions. Deep down, you know that you are just shy. This doesn’t mean others are wrong but that your behavior is sending an incorrect impression you might want to try to adjust. For example, you might recognize the value of role-playing important negotiations with those you trust or engaging in low-stakes negotiations to improve your confidence in negotiation and skills at the table.
Third, based on the feedback you receive about your blind spots, work on addressing your underlying tendencies rather than simply trying to change your surface behavior. For example, someone who tends to treat each negotiation as do-or-die may be motivated by deep-seated insecurities or strong internal pressure to succeed. Trying to appear more relaxed is unlikely to help either psychologically or strategically. In this case, you might benefit from asking people to comment on your strengths as well as your weaknesses as a way of bolstering your confidence in negotiation. Or you might need to engage in deeper introspection or relaxation practices such as meditation to help you put your negotiations in perspective.
A final note: As you seek to improve your confidence in negotiation, be careful not to sacrifice your authenticity and honesty in the process, cautions Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino in our “Dear Negotiation Coach” feature of this issue.
Have you encountered desperation in negotiation, and how did it all play out? Leave a comment below.