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Why Negotiations Get Derailed (And How to Keep Them on Track)


Negotiation is a key to success in whatever field of business you're in.

Business only happens through buying and selling. Both of these processes involve negotiation.

Every interaction in which you're asking something of another person is, on some level, a negotiation.

Examples of other things you may have to negotiate in business include:

  • a new contract with a supplier or client
  • a merger with another company
  • an introduction to a new contact
  • workplace disagreements and disputes
  • the salaries of your employees

What can you do to make sure you come out on top of every negotiation?

People often assume that being a good negotiator is all about having the best argument. If you can build a solid case, and convey your point of view rationally, then you'll win the negotiation.

For better or worse, this isn't usually how negotiations work. Building a solid case will certainly help your cause. But if that's all you do, then you're likely to come out of negotiations behind. Assuming that rationality is the only thing you need to win is a surefire way to derail any negotiation.

Why does being logical and rational fail in negotiations? Let's briefly look at two reasons for this:

  1. First, by its very nature, negotiation is about contested issues. It's not a process of scientific discovery. It's a way of resolving disputes to which there isn't a scientific or fully logical answer. Negotiation is about coming to an agreement with another person, not proving something beyond all doubt.
  2. Second, people often behave in illogical and irrational ways. Human nature and psychology aren't logical. There's always more than logic going on in any social interaction.

Given that rational argument alone isn't enough to win a negotiation, what can you do to give yourself the advantage in negotiation situations?

The best way forward is to make yourself aware of the non-rational influences on any negotiation. Once you know what these are, you put yourself in a place where you can use them to your advantage.

In this article, we'll look at five influences on any negotiation and consider how you can use these to work for you.

1. Your Personal Presentation

We all know the phrase "never judge a book by its cover". We know we shouldn't judge others based on their appearance or what they're wearing. But the truth is, we do.

That means other people are making judgements on you, based on how you dress and present yourself. With that in mind, let's look at four reasons why personal presentation matters.

Good personal presentation:

Gives the Right First Impression

Job interviews are a key negotiation that almost everyone goes through at some point during their life. A study by Professor Frank Bernieri of the University of Toledo found that in interview situations, interviewers make judgements on candidates within the first 15 seconds of meeting them.

In Bernieri's own words, dressing incorrectly for an interview is equivalent to "picking your nose during an interview". Poor personal presentation is that much of a disaster.

Dressing appropriately for negotiations gives you a better chance of making the right first impression. It gets things started on the right footing, and builds a firm foundation for a successful negotiation.

Boosts Your Perceived Status

A study published in the Evolution and Human Behavior journal found that wearing clothing perceived as high-status makes people more successful in negotiations.

Participants in the study who wore designer clothes found it easier to:

  • gain co-operation from other people
  • receive job recommendations
  • negotiate a higher salary
  • collect contributions for charity

For example, a participant wearing a sweater with a designer logo asked passers-by to fill out a survey. Over half (52%) of people responded. This compares to just 13% of people who responded to a participant wearing a sweater without a logo.

Dressing smartly and appropriately boosts your perceived status, which means that other people want to help you as best they can.

Helps You Feel Better About Yourself

Dressing to impress creates a big uplift to your self confidence. That self confidence gives you the edge in negotiations. As communications expert Cheryl Conner explains:

It’s a well-established fact that people do business most readily with other people they trust and feel most comfortable with. And few things invoke more confidence than a person who is comfortable and happy enough in their own being to focus the energy and substance of their presentation on what they can be providing for you.

When you feel good about yourself, your confidence shines through. This makes people want to do business with you.

Establishes an Instant Connection With Others

Dressing appropriately for a negotiation doesn't always mean donning professional attire. A study at California State University, Northridge, found that participants were more likely to follow directions accurately when the directions were given by someone in casual clothing. Why? Because the participants were students, themselves casually dressed.

In other words, by dressing in a similar way to the people you are negotiating with, you create a mirroring effect. When we mirror other people, we build rapport with them. This mirroring can be a conscious process, but typically it happens subconsciously.

Now you know how to dress for a negotiation, let's look at what you should (and shouldn't) say...

2. Your Choice of Words

Words aren't neutral tools. Words have incredible power. As any poet will tell you, all words are rich with meaning.

When it comes to choosing your words, it's worth bearing the following in mind:

All Words Have Connotations

Whenever we say something, we always paint a bigger picture than the actual words we're using. Think of the difference between referring to someone as "friend", "colleague" or "boss". One person could be all three of these, yet each word gives a different impression. When you're in a negotiation, bear in mind the connotations of your word choices. And make sure you choose words that are appropriate to the negotiation.

Words Plant Seeds

If I tell you, "Don't think of a pink elephant," what happens? You think of a pink elephant, right? That's just the way the mind works (if you're interested in finding out more, it's called ironic process theory). Words you bring into a negotiation will stay part of the negotiation. This includes the way you frame the negotiation.

Let's say you want to negotiate a raise, because you've been performing well at work, and you believe your salary should reflect your performance. You could ask your boss if you can discuss your salary—in which case you'll put your boss on the defensive before the discussion has even started. Or you could ask for a performance review. This difference in framing will have a big impact on the outcome of the negotiation.

Words Build Connection

In the previous section on personal appearance, we touched on the topic of mirroring. When your appearance mirrors the person you're speaking with, you build rapport.

You can create the same effect with words. Choose words and phrases that mirror what the person you're negotiating with is saying, and you will establish rapport with them.

Negotiation consultant Peter Frensdorf puts it this way:

The more words you recycle (re-use their words to suit your purpose) the greater your chance of acceptance.

3. Your Body Language

Word choice matters, but it's a well-known fact that what you don't say matters even more than what you do say. Body language accounts for over half of the message you communicate.

You can adjust your body language to improve your chances of success in negotiation situations. Body language is an excellent way of building rapport, and good rapport makes for good outcomes to your negotiations.

Establish Eye Contact

Making eye contact with the person you're negotiating with builds trust. It shows that you're engaged in the conversation, and it creates an emotional connection. That said, you should keep the amount of eye contact you use natural. Too much eyeballing will make it feel like a confrontation.

Keep Your Hands Open

Opening your hands, with palms up, is a sign that you accept the person you're talking with, and you want to include them. It's an effective gesture whether you're negotiating with one person or a group of people.

Remember to Mirror

As with clothing and word choice, you can mirror body language to develop rapport. Synchronize your body language with the person you're in negotiation with, and you will help them relax and feel comfortable.

4. The Negotiation Space

Negotiating on home territory gives you a big advantage, because you get to choose the set-up of the negotiating room. Through the environment you create, you can influence the negotiation.

As Peter Frensdorf puts it:

A briefcase or a fruit basket on the negotiation table makes an impression on whatever takes place there. One indicates business; the other is a welcoming gesture.

Environmental influence is a growing area of research, and one that's worth delving deep into if you're involved in setting up negotiating spaces. Let's look at two examples to get you thinking in the right direction.

In a 2008 study published in the Science journal, Lawrence Williams and John Bargh explain the effects of giving people a warm or cold drink. Participants given a hot cup of coffee judged those they met as having a "warmer" personality compared to participants given a cold cup of coffee.

If you want to come across as warm and friendly, giving people hot drinks is a good way to start.

A second simple way of influencing a negotiation is through the chairs you sit on during the negotiation. Another study published in Science found that "hard objects increased rigidity in negotiations." In the negotiation simulation set up by the researchers, buyers who sat in soft chairs offered nearly 40% more compared to buyers who sat in hard chairs.

Sit in a hard chair, and you're more likely to play hardball in your negotiations. If reaching a mutual agreement is important, then soft chairs are your best bet.

5. The Momentum of the Negotiation

The word business is a corruption of "busyness". In the business world, we're all busy, with many demands on our time. As such, almost all negotiations have a time limit. Effective negotiators know how to use this to their advantage. The key lies in ensuring that the momentum of a negotiation is running in your favor when it's time to wrap things up.

In his book Why Don't We Learn from History? B. H. Liddell Hart observes how the wheels of history often spin on the stomachs of decision makers:

I have long come to realize the crucial importance of lunchtime. Two hours or more may have been spent in deliberate discussion and careful weighing of a problem, but the last quarter of an hour often counts for more than all the rest. At 12.45pm there may be no prospect of an agreed solution, yet around 1pm important decisions may be reached with little argument, because[...] attention [...] has turned to watching the hands of [...] watches. Those moving hands can have a remarkable effect in accelerating the movements of minds to the point of a snap decision.

When you're in the negotiating room, be aware of the time. It can work for you or against you.

Now, Over to You

What strategies do you use to make sure your negotiations are successful? Let us know in the comments section, below.


Graphic Credit: Railroad designed by Luis Martins from the Noun Project

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