Why it's better for you to face off with a good negotiator

It seems counter intuitive, but that's the negotiation paradox

Does negotiation intimidate you?  Would you prefer to face an inexperienced negotiator or a shrewd one? Common belief holds that the less experienced the other side, the better off you are in a negotiation. Not so. Under most circumstances, you are actually better off dealing with someone who is a good negotiator. This is what I call the negotiation paradox, and the reasoning behind it is simple yet profound:

Smart and principled negotiators are skilled at uncovering the other side’s interests and using that knowledge to everyone’s benefit, not just their own.

Timeless wisdom.

In the classic bestseller Getting to Yes, authors Roger Fisher and William Ury identify four basic principals of negotiation:

  1. Separate the People from the Problem
  2. Focus on Interests, not Positions
  3. Invent Options for Mutual Gain
  4. Insist on Using Objective Criteria

Perhaps the most influential negotiation book of all time, Getting to Yes has been eye-opening to countless readers.  It’s worth reading cover to cover, but if I had to sum it up in one line I would say this: Think expansively, Be fair, Know when to walk away.  For now I’ll focus on the first point.

It’s usually not about getting the upper hand.

No matter how lopsided a negotiation may seem, nobody negotiates unless there is something to be gained by doing so.  Even if the alternative is catastrophic, anyone involved in a negotiation is basically a willing participant.  So however the different parties feel toward one another there is a possibility that the process will benefit each of them.  (In the end they may find that their interests simply don’t overlap enough to work out a deal.  That’s actually okay, but it’s beyond the scope of this article.)

Assuming you have any interest in an ongoing relationship with the person or business you’re negotiating with, you’ll want everyone to be happy with the outcome.  Even so, a good negotiator will do everything he or she can to avoid compromise.  Principled and smart negotiators look for ways to expand the pie instead of dividing it.

More pie for everybody!

A fixed pie mindset is the attitude that there is only so much to go around.  More for you means less for me.  Sometimes that’s the way things are (the classic case being a used car sale), but people often have this mindset even when it doesn’t suit the situation.  If you’re negotiating over something scarce, maybe the other party has something valuable he can offer in exchange for a greater share.  If he has something that’s of little value to him and great value to you, it’s a potential win-win.  But you aren’t likely to figure that out unless both parties are competent negotiators.  That’s what I mean by Think Expansively.

Let me attempt a more concrete example.  You’re the manager of a small business trying to negotiate a discount with a distributor of beverages and drink accessories.  The supplier and buyer are basically pitted against each other if only the discount is discussed.  But each business has other unmet needs that the other can fulfill.  A larger distributor has been gobbling up customers by selling at a loss to new buyers and roping them into contracts.  As a growing business, you care about quality and cash flow.  As a business in a more competitive market, the distributor cares about security and branding

Along the way you learn that the company you’re talking with is unhappy with its marketing, which it outsources.  You happen to have a really talented marketing guy that is always looking for more to do around the office.  He’s salaried and happy to take on additional work.  At this point the potential for a win-win partnership becomes obvious.  You can negotiate a discount in exchange for  3 – 5 hours a week of free marketing services.  A two-year contract ensures that you enjoy privileged access to quality products while your new supplier enjoys security and assistance with branding.


Lest I be accused of being naively idealistic, there are a couple caveats.  The most obvious is that if you aren’t dealing with someone with honorable intentions, no amount of creativity and diplomacy is likely to help you.  Nonetheless, one of the benefits of a well-planned negotiation is that such people tend to reveal more about themselves than they might have wished.

Getting to Yes was originally published in 1981 and, not surprisingly, it’s a bit dated.  Nonetheless, its principals are timeless and kind of make you feel good about being human!  When we learn these negotiation skills, we benefit each other as well as ourselves.

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