Deal or No Deal?

Great negotiators have a broad range of negotiation skills.  What’s more, they realise that these skills aren’t confined to the negotiation itself, and that a successful outcome depends on getting a clear understanding of the client’s objectives at the outset.

Whilst perhaps an obvious point, there are a host of factors to be considered.  For example, the client may have a very subjective perspective on the matter, or their emotions may have become entangled with the issues.  Equally, they may feel like they cannot be open (at least initially) with their lawyer about what it is they really want from the discussions.

Experienced negotiators will be acutely aware of these factors. So, they’ll be more probing in their questions. They’ll also suggest a range of hypothetical scenarios to test what’s really important to the client. And, above all, they’ll do all they can to put their clients at ease to allow them to talk freely and openly about their needs.

Adopting, and Responding to, Different Negotiation Styles

Most textbooks on negotiation feature a chapter on the various negotiation styles: competitive, co-operative and problem-solving. They’ll go on to explain what each style involves. Whilst this is helpful in terms of identifying when a particular style is being adopted by the opposing negotiator, it doesn’t necessarily help adopt a style that doesn’t come naturally or respond to a style which is at odds with yours.

The best negotiators know their natural style, but also have techniques to enable them to switch styles. For instance, they may effect a change in their physical state, such as standing up or leaning forward (easier in telephone negotiations than face to face situations!).  Or they may simply rehearse statements to help them make the mental and physical switch from one style to another.

Knowing how to manage the dominant style being adopted by the other negotiator is also a very useful skill, particularly where that other style is competitive. For example, if a party is repeatedly taking a hard line approach and restating their position, you could neutralise this approach by simply acknowledging that their position is understood (while neither accepting nor rejecting it), and go on to explain that it is just one of a range of options to be considered. You could then go on to outline those other options or instigate a discussion around them.

Underlying Interests

No matter how well-prepared you are, it is still very difficult to predict how a negotiation will unfold. There are some key steps you can take, however, to improve your chances of achieving the best result for your client.

For instance, you should spend as much time as possible in the early stages of the discussion trying to identify the other side’s underlying interests – what lies beneath their stated “position”. This will help you identify any solutions of mutual benefit, and enable you to position your offers and suggestions. Asking simple questions, such as “Why is that so important for your client?” or “What factors have contributed to that stance?” will help you in this process.

Deal breakers

It is generally advisable to put any deal-breakers on the table at an early stage, otherwise the parties are potentially wasting time discussing the less controversial issues.

The Psychology of Offers

As for offers, most commentators agree that there’s an advantage in making the first offer, as it provides an “anchor” and reference point for the subsequent discussion. Research suggests that more ambitious offers usually translate into better end results. Some negotiators will shy away from being too ambitious in their targets, fearing that this approach risks alienating the other side. Whilst this is a valid concern, the risk can be mitigated by using a conciliatory tone, and more neutral language.


Ultimately, a good negotiation should be about persuasion, rather than power. A good measure of success is that you’ve convinced the other party that they’ve achieved the best result – even if, in reality, you would have conceded some more, if you really had to.

Chris Sweetman is a trainer at national legal training provider, Altior. A commercial lawyer by background, Chris runs professional development training in the fields of negotiation, drafting and commercial awareness.

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