10 Negotiation Lessons

April 19, 2016 By Irma Tyler Wood

#1 - Always Test Assumptions

My law professor and negotiation mentor, Roger Fisher, co-author of Getting To Yes, Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, said beware of anyone who gives negotiation advice using words like, “always” and “never.” Negotiation is highly contextual, a tactic that works well in one situation may be a disaster in another.”  Why then am I advising, “always” test assumptions.  Twenty years of experience in teaching, facilitating consulting and advising in the field of negotiations, has led to the formation of some key strategic principles.  Principles are general guidelines, not tactics.  

One reason negotiators fail to achieve their maximum desired outcomes is that they fail to test their and the other negotiator’s assumptions, i.e. the things a negotiator believes to be true.  Making assumptions is natural and in many instances essential.  What is dangerous about assumptions is that they often remain, unconscious, implicit and untested.  That is why the most powerful person in the initial stages of a negotiation is not the person who’s staking out positions, or making demands. The most powerful person is the person who is asking key questions designed to fully understand the other negotiator/s goals, fears and needs.  Asking questions is one way to test assumptions.  

When preparing for your next negotiation, after getting clear about your own goals, needs, concerns and fears, use your emotional intelligence and any data you’ve gathered to stand in the shoes of the other party or parties and estimate what their goals, needs, concerns and priorities are in the upcoming negotiation.  

Two caveats:

  1. Each of your estimates about what they need, want and fear is an assumption.  Spend the initial phases of the actual negotiation asking questions to test your assumptions and gain a sense of their priorities.
  2. Knowledge is power, asking questions gives you knowledge, so often people aren’t open or willing to answer your questions for fear they will lose power and/or be taken advantage of.  To mitigate this natural reluctance:
    1. Model the behavior you want to see from them, share information after carefully weighing the potential risks and rewards of disclosing the information.  Start small with low risk disclosures, if you don’t know the person, or you don’t trust them.
    2. Tell them why you are asking, i.e., “If we are going to get an agreement that satisfies your needs as well as mine, I want to understand what is really important to you.”
    3. Introduce one of your assumptions about their needs, goals and ask whether you understand them correctly, i.e., “Nancy, when I thought about this issue, I assumed, blank, blank and blank would be important to you, am I correct?” 

May's Blog will feature:  Lesson #2, “Address Negotiation Elephants & Red Flags Early.”