Ask A Negotiation Expert: Making Our Good Negotiation Skills Even Better

To gain good negotiation skills, it's vital to review our entire negotiation process, from preparation through the final results.

By — on / Teaching Negotiation

good negotiation skills

We recently spoke to Harvard Business School professor Michael Wheeler about the challenges and opportunities of learning good negotiation skills from our real life bargaining situations. Wheeler is the author of The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World (Simon & Schuster, 2013) and the “Negotiation 360” preparation app, which is available for Android and Apple devices.

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Negotiation Briefings: If we already have good negotiation skills, what are the potential benefits of working to improve those skills?

Michael Wheeler: The good news is that becoming even a somewhat better negotiator, as opposed to a spectacularly better negotiator, has big payoffs, which come in three forms. First, it allows you to reach deals that might otherwise slip through your fingers. Second, in the deals you do reach, it significantly ups the odds that you will be able to create value that benefits you and the people with whom you’re dealing. Third, it gives you the capacity to resolve small differences before they escalate into costly conflicts.

NB: Which teaching methods are most effective at helping us absorb useful negotiation skills and strategies?

MW: In a 2003 study, professors Janice Nadler and Leigh Thompson of Northwestern University and Leaf Van Boven of the University of Colorado looked at different ways of teaching a key negotiation concept, namely creating value through tradeoffs.

The researchers paired up study participants and had them engage in a negotiation simulation with one another. Next, they were taught how to create value through tradeoffs using one of four methods. Finally, they met up with their partner for another negotiation simulation to see what they had learned.

Two of the teaching methods were relatively ineffective at teaching the concept; the other two were more effective. When the concept was presented in a textbook reading, pairs weren’t any more likely to put it to work in a simulation than before they were taught about it. Similarly, when people were giving information after their first negotiation that revealed how they might have worked to create value, they also were not effective at creating value in their next negotiation.

Two other learning methods were more effective. One involved analogical reasoning—presenting two different negotiation vignettes that seemed very different on the surface but that both involved parties recognized opportunities to make tradeoffs. Thinking about parallels and contrasts made participants more likely to find such opportunities in their next simulation. Finally, in a fourth teaching method, after the participants’ first negotiation, researchers showed some participants a videotape of negotiators (portrayed by actors) reaching a win-win agreement by exchanging information about which issues were most and least important to them. After watching the video, the participants become more capable of creating value in their next negotiation.

The lesson is that negotiation teachers need to show people a concept in two different situations so that they can begin to apply it to their own situation, or teachers need to demonstrate a method in a way that is illustrated but not fully articulated, as in a video.

NB: What’s the best way for individuals to learn on their own from their negotiations?

MW: Even with good negotiation skills, the process is what’s called a “wicked learning experience” because we get very poor feedback from it. If you imagine a basketball player who is trying to improve her free throws, she receives immediate feedback on what’s working and what’s not, and can adjust her stance, and so on, accordingly.

By contrast, when you go to the bargaining table, you may be well prepared, yet still walk away empty-handed. What lesson should you draw from that? One possibility is that there just wasn’t a deal available. The very best you could do wasn’t as good as what the other party could get from someone else. Another possibility is that your target was too ambitious. Or maybe the other person had been burned the day before and thought you were bluffing when you said you’d offered as much as you could. It could be any of those things. So, results don’t tell us much, even when we come to agreement.

Moreover, it pays to look at what you’re putting into the negotiation instead of just your outcomes. Before we negotiate, we can practice good negotiation skills and lay out bullet points of our strategy, starting with a realistic understanding of our BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement), our walkaway point (which is not the same thing as our BATNA), our stretch goal, and our target. We can think about the approach and attitude of the other person as well, and then critique our plan.

Many people are getting somewhat better at preparing for negotiation, but good negotiation skills require that they do an after-action review, as well. Over time, if we catalog what worked well, what didn’t, and how we might do better, we can establish a library of our own best practices. But if we don’t do that in a disciplined way—if we just assume we’re going to remember what worked and what didn’t—we’ll be prone to repeating our mistakes.

What steps do you take to improve your negotiation skills?

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