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How to Persuade People to Negotiate

Chuck Doran and Daniele Natali Goldberg

You want to negotiate something with your supervisor, but they are just not interested in hearing about it. Perhaps you’ve already tried talking to them, or perhaps you are anticipating that they will deny your request. Maybe you are seeking to negotiate something small, or maybe you want to address an ongoing, deeply-rooted conflict. Before a negotiation even begins, a key skill is knowing how to persuade people to negotiate.

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One of the keys to success in negotiation is preparation, and the process of arriving at the negotiation table is part of that preparation. Pre-negotiation is itself a mini-negotiation, setting the tone for your future conversations in crucial ways. Harold Saunders observed that, “In many cases, persuading parties […] to commit to a negotiated settlement is even more complicated, time-consuming, and difficult than reaching agreement once negotiations have begun.” How do we persuade people, such that they agree to sit across the table from us and negotiate? Following are a handful of low-cost, high-value tips on how to persuade people to negotiate with you.

1. Be clear why this is important to you

Articulate your thoughts to yourself and others through the following framing: What are my goals? Why is this negotiation important to me? How will negotiation help me achieve these goals? Being clear about your issues, why you care about them and how negotiating will assist in achieving them, frames your ideas clearly and thoughtfully. Sharing the values underlying your goals will shift the conversation in a powerful way, giving deeper substance and force to your request for negotiation.

2. Demonstrate what they can gain from negotiating

When learning how to persuade people to negotiate with you, it’s important to make it clear why this negotiation should be important to them. Focus on short and long-term gains, considering both pragmatic and relational elements of the process. For example, you can emphasize how negotiation can minimize costs or may help resolve certain issues. If you sense that engaging in negotiation will strengthen your relationship with the other party, you may decide to emphasize this point, too. If you find it to be relevant to your circumstances, demonstrate that negotiation will yield a better outcome than other alternatives, not excluding the status quo. Show how the costs of pursuing options other than negotiation—or continuing the conflict—are too high, and that they can be reduced by entering into a negotiation. Reframe your success as their success, your happiness as their happiness: mutual solutions bring mutual gain, and perhaps this is an opportunity for both parties to gain something.

3. Listen, even if the answer is “no”

If the other party says no to your request for negotiation, listen fully to their response. Acknowledge the concerns and emotions they raise in their response. Ask them why they feel the way they do, and see if you can address their underlying needs and concerns. Just as you asked yourself what you care about and why, get a sense of what they care about and why. For instance, a supervisor might dismiss your request to negotiate flex time, citing that there are department standards that cannot be negotiated just for one employee. While your request was denied, you also learned about an important interest your supervisor has: to ensure that all employees receive the same benefits, preferably those encompassed in the department standards. With this information, you can work to identify other employees who might be interested in revising the flex time policy, and you can approach your supervisor again with a new message: let’s negotiate the current department standards to meet employees’ changing needs. Taking the time to understand the other person’s perspective goes a long way. If you can demonstrate consideration for them and meet their needs alongside yours, they will be more likely to negotiate with you.

4. Identify the right time to ask

I. William Zartman’s ripeness theory suggests that in certain conflict situations and when certain conditions exist, parties are more likely to consider negotiation as an option. In other words, timing can be essential. According to Zartman, if both parties are impacted enough (whether financially, emotionally, resource-wise, etc.) by the current conflict situation, or if tension is particularly high, the situation may be ripe and the time could be right to offer a negotiated agreement. It may be difficult to wait to negotiate the issue at hand, but the other person may need more time to think about the issue, or they may need to feel more affected by it. Be sensitive and attentive to your circumstances and make your calculations based on this awareness. You should also keep in mind the other person’s schedule and the time of day. Research on factors impacting judicial decision making found that judges’ decisions were harsher right before mealtime and more lenient directly after mealtime. Think about the time of day and forum in which this person would be least stressed, and try to approach them then (especially if it’s right after lunch).

With this in mind, though, remember that there is not one “right” time to approach someone for negotiation. There are many appropriate moments, and waiting for the perfect moment can be an excuse for procrastinating or avoiding a tough conversation.

5. Be flexible and give them power in the process

Give them enough power in deciding the framework and forum of the meeting so they will be more likely to agree and show up. Ask them when, where, and by which forum is best for them to meet, and adapt to those needs. You can also adapt to how they prefer to communicate and follow through in their preferred ways. For instance, if they are only willing to discuss the issue via email rather than in person, revise your strategy and negotiate via email. Demonstrating to them that you value their needs and preferences will encourage them to accept your request to negotiate. If the situation is sensitive, you may offer to have an initial meeting with them (perhaps in a neutral space) so as to create familiarity and comfort. If the initial meeting goes well, offer to meet again and discuss more substantial matters, and be prepared to redesign the structure of future meetings according to the other party’s needs.

In short, when considering how to persuade people to negotiate, take into account their concerns and needs alongside your own and be flexible in meeting those needs. Consider this a part of your preparation for an effective negotiation, and remember that the pre-negotiation stage is integral to future success.

To learn more about how to persuade people to negotiate and the pre-negotiation phase, contact Chuck Doran at 617-895-4026 or cdoran@mwi.org for more information.

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