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Tooling Up: Negotiation Boot Camp

Two months ago, I found myself knee-deep in one of those 2-day intensive courses on negotiation you see advertised in airline magazines. I have always loved to read and study professional negotiation skills, so I thought, why not? After all, they've been advertising these meetings for nearly 30 years.

Nearly $1000 later, I can tell you that negotiation isn't something that can be taught in two days. In fact, my recent boot camp experience helps me to realize just how big the subject really is. It could be a lifetime study. Negotiation tactics depend on the people and cultures doing the negotiating, and there are a lot of those.

This month's column is a "nutshell" version of negotiation skills for Tooling Up readers, and it's a good topic for technical professionals of any stripe. Few job skills bring as much overall value to your life and career as the ability to negotiate well. This knowledge isn't only for those in the corner office; even if you occupy just a small corner of the lab bench, studying the interpersonal relations that go on in a negotiation can be very rewarding. Plus, although becoming a master may be a lifetime's pursuit, mastering the basics is quick and painless. It doesn't take an MBA or expensive classes to make a huge impact on what you know about the subject. So the "cost vs. impact" ratio is great.

Here are seven tips and techniques distilled from my boot camp experience, some reading that I've done on the subject by authors such as Roger Dawson and Chester Karrass, and my own personal and professional experiences.

Tips and Techniques

Tip #1: Consider Culture

Sometimes people of different nationalities clash in the negotiation process, and in no employment sector do we have such cultural and ethnic diversity as the sciences.

Have you visited a Mexican border town? If so, I'm sure you found a great buy on a rug, some glassware, or a piece of pottery. Did you pay what the vendor requested?

I hope not. In the culture of the border town, vendors are supposed to ask three or four times what they expect to get for a product. And shoppers are supposed to bargain with them until they get a fair price. Try doing this at Wal-Mart and see what happens.

If you are about to sit down to negotiate a new position with a boss you don't know, consider that person's heritage, and recognize that it may affect the way the process moves along. One party may want the dialog to move along quickly, and it's likely that this person is born in the United States. According to what I learned at boot camp, the "American style" of negotiation goes back and forth like a game of ping-pong. If you are from a different culture, this pace of negotiation could be disquieting.

Tip #2: Up Your Expectations

Can you learn anything from those south-of-the-border merchants? Yes, you can: you can learn to give yourself more room to maneuver. If you were going to your present boss to ask for an increase in salary, you wouldn't want to tell him or her that you are seeking a $15,000 increase when your goal is actually $3,000. That might end the discussion right there. However, you probably do need to start giving yourself a bit more headroom.

It just doesn't pay to start a negotiation close to the bottom line. If you said you needed just $3000, it's likely that there would be some budgetary reason to cut your request to $2500 or lower. Increasing your aspirations to $4000-$4500 might improve the odds of getting that $3000. And who knows? You might get a little more.

It's time to start achieving your negotiation goals instead of falling short, and you can often do this by carefully raising your expectations to give you more headroom for the inevitable give-and-take. Just be careful not to push it too far; particularly in the academic world, aggressive negotiation can be a sensitive subject.

Tip #3: Don't Forget to Flinch

What should you do when someone comes back seeking a whopping concession, or when they come at you with a lowball offer? Use what one expert calls "The Flinch." Dr. Chester Karrass, negotiation trainer extraordinaire and head of the company whose course I attended, describes how effectively this technique works: "Simply by showing an immediate reaction, a visible sign of your dissatisfaction, you can make great progress in lowering the other party's aspirations."

Following the flinch with a comment that reinforces the other party's lowered aspirations is a good idea. If you are negotiating for the purchase of a car, it might be a hardball comment like "You've got to do better than that," followed by some direct eye contact. You decide what kind of comment might work with your boss!

Tip #4: Shut Up

It is best to keep quiet so that you don't give away too much to the other party. I remember the way my wife and I bought a car a few years ago. We fell in love with this little red beauty in the showroom, almost drooling over it while the salesman stood there watching. What happened when we asked for a good deal on that vehicle? Not much.

Tip #5: What Lies Under the Surface?

Everyone who writes about negotiation describes how important it is for you to know all you can about the other party's situation--and to keep the other party ignorant of yours. A great metaphor is an iceberg, which shows only a tiny portion of itself above the water, its massive heft concealed under the surface. The same should be true with your negotiation process: keep your agenda and the facts of your circumstance submerged. The price is clear, as are the actual goods or services and anything you thoughtfully and strategically choose to reveal. If your counterpart in the negotiation is a trained negotiator, he or she will be trying to do the same. Sometimes your detective work can dig up the key fact that will win the negotiation, or convince you to steer clear.

As an executive recruiter, one of the greatest problems I have in bringing good people to the table for my clients is that a spouse can make a huge impact on the negotiation process, but that discussion takes place below the surface. I must work hard to determine what all of the issues will be for the two parties involved in that tricky negotiation.

Think about what all the issues will be for the person you are negotiating with, and plan a strategy that takes those issues into account.

Tip #6: Manage Your Concessions

Give and take occurs in every negotiation. Every party gives up something; that's what makes it a negotiation. The specific items you give up are labeled "concessions."

The problem with most concessions is that they are not a part of an overall strategy. By managing your concessions well--and, specifically, by giving up (grudgingly) things you don't actually care that much about--you will end the process with a better result.

Remember not to give anything away without having a good reason to do so, and when you do give up something, make certain that you don't follow it with similar concessions. For example, if you were negotiating with someone and each time you requested a concession they gave you a $5 discount, what would you expect the next time you said that the price wasn't to your liking? You would expect another $5 concession. If, meanwhile, each time you make a concession you reduce the amount--$5, $4, $3, $2, $1, and finally 50 cents--you can make that last little bit you give feel like it was wrung out of a turnip and convince your counterpart that there's no more where that came from. That's a good example of managing your concessions.

Tip #7: Relationship Issues Close the Deal

Karrass did much of the research that his company uses today in its negotiation seminars. He studied three factors that result in successful negotiations: the "best price," the "best solution," or the "strength of the relationship." While most people think it is the best price that closes the deal, in fact this is only true 6% of the time, according to Karrass. The product or service that represented the best solution won out 38% of the time. The big winner? The relationship itself, at 56%.

People are more successful in closing negotiations when they are anchored by an existing and valued relationship. This doesn't mean you have to be good buddies with everyone you negotiate with. It does means that when negotiating you have to pay a fair amount of attention to each component of the discussion in order to manage the impact of that request upon your relationship with the other party. Preserve that relationship as best you can; it is critical to this event and to all future negotiations.

In Conclusion

Negotiating skills are critical for success. So, commit yourself to learning more and improving yours, whether through reading, short courses, or practice at a border-town kiosk. You will soon be armed with a host of strategies that you can use in your next negotiation, whether it is asking for more money from your boss or deciding who gets stuck taking notes in that committee you've been asked to join.