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How to reduce the fear factor at the negotiating table

Stress and aggression trigger the brain’s threat system

So many negotiations are unsatisfactory because we dive into money and numbers before uncovering the needs or hot buttons of the other side. Negotiation then becomes a battle of wills to see who can squeeze the most from the other side. This makes negotiation a stressful, negative experience, triggering the brain’s threat system. This can undermine long-term trusting business relationships, creating a win-lose mentality rather than win-win.

What’s important to the other party?

Before negotiations begin in earnest, it is essential to find out what is important to the other side. It is also the time for you to demonstrate real listening and ask questions to show that you fully understand their needs. This will help maintain rapport and activate the brain’s reward circuitry, getting negotiations off to a healthy start. Think for a moment about the last time you chose a builder to work on your house. You may have told them that price was critical, but in actual fact, there would have been many other factors that influenced your choice, for example, their reputation, trustworthiness, guarantees, quality of workmanship, personal recommendations etc. Similarly when you choose a web designer or marketing expert, price is in the mix, but probably not at the top.

Before negotiations begin in earnest, it is essential to find out what is important to the other side.

This is backed up by research by Neil Rackham showing that business-to-business purchasing decisions are based firstly on the vendor relationship, then vendor stability, followed by responsiveness. Price is only fourth on the list. However when we are the seller, and the other side tells us that price is the key driver of the purchasing decision, it is all too easy for us to accept the statement at face value and offer concessions out of fear of losing the deal.

Find out their interest vs position

Asking questions and listening provides a much gentler and less hostile start to the negotiation. It helps to reduce the fear factor on both sides. It gives both parties a clear understanding of each other’s needs and helps to uncover the interests behind the position as demonstrated by the following story:

Two sisters were fighting over an orange. After a lot of arguing, they took half each. One sister ate her half and threw away the peel. The other grated her half of the peel to make marmalade and threw away the flesh.

How many opportunities for a win-win deal are you throwing away through insufficient or too narrow discussion? Next time you negotiate, make sure you spend a significant proportion of the time discussing the interests at play, rather than haggling over your position.

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