Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Steve's five rules for successful negotiations

Some readers know that I am also a union president. Right now I am involved in contract negotiations, which is stressful at the best of times. Even though I am president, I am not chief negotiator, because I have an officer who is better at that, with loads more experience. I generally sit in the second chair, and it is often my role to be "bad cop."

Nonetheless, in participating in these kinds of negotiations now for the better part of a decade, I have learned some rules of thumg that serve me well, particularly when you know that you have to work with the people on the other side of the table before, during, and after the negotiations process.

Rule One: Know what you need, what you want, and what you'd just like to have--and understand that it will often be necessary to give away things you like or want to get what you need. Novice negotiators decide on their priorities during negotiations; experienced and successful pros sit down with their teams and rank order the importance of each item at issue. Although your priorities may change during negotiations, it is a guaranteed sure loser to wait until you're actually sitting there to decide which of your proposals is worth drawing a line in the sand and which is not.

Rule Two: Be civil, even collegial. Taking time for the opening/closing pleasantries, being a generous host when the talks take place in your venue, not jerking the other team around over meeting times or even over legitimate mistakes is not merely pro forma, it is crtical to successful negotiations--no matter how big an asshole you think the person across the table is in real life. This may seem awfully simplistic, but you would be amazed how many people cannot or do not do it. An example: two years ago I was scheduled to represent a grievant at a hearing in front of a vice-president. We have ten days to hear these issues, or it is supposed to default to the next level; on this particular occasion the VP and I could not schedule the hearing until the tenth day at 2pm. That morning at 11am he called me up and told me his son had been in an accident at school and he needed to go to the ER. I waived the timing immediately. The next day when I brought my unit member into his office for the hearing, I started by asking how his son was, and wishing him well. My unit member later went off on me both for the schedule change and for "sucking up" by asking about the boy's broken leg. My unit member, ironically, had gotten everything he asked for in his grievance, in part because I had taken the time to develop a cordial working relationship with the VP. Yes, sometimes we had an adversarial relationship, but we never had a rude relationship. There is a critical difference.

Rule Three: Listen to what the people on the other side of the table are saying--and are not saying. Sometimes, if you actually listen to those folks, you will find out that there are compromises to be made that they could agree to, but cannot propose. That's because the negotiators on both sides of the table are rarely the final authority. In my case we have to sell our end product to an Executive Committee and then to a full vote of our membership. The university team has to get the approval of both the President and Board of Trustees. There are some issues that a university negotiator might be able to concede, if we brought them up, but he could not go back to his Board and tell them he offered. Good negotiators learn to communicate with each other by being very precise in their language. If Proposal One has three parts (A, B, and C), and the other side tells you, "We can't accept Proposal One; "A" as it is written is out of the question," he is telling you that B and C will probably fly, but that you need to offer him alternative language on "A". It's that "as written" which then becomes the key. Too many negotiators with whom I work (on both sides) do not really listen to what is being said.

Rule Four: Respect the confidentiality of negotiations. What should matter to your team and your side is the ultimate product you can deliver, not the details of the haggling and horse-trading that got you there. Sometimes the other side--if they trust that you will keep information confidential--will confide the real reasons why they cannot do X or Y, and those reasons will make sense to you. At other times, the final deals are literally made, not for reasons of policy, but to get the overall deal done. If both sides have correctly prioritized their issues, and you are coming to the end of negotiations, you can often outright swap items. Say there are four items left: two of yours and two of theirs. Somebody eventually says, "OK, we're not going to take your issue A and you're not going to take our issue B, so we'll agree to both withdraw them. Then we will hold our nose and give you issue C in exchange for you looking the other way and giving us issue D. Deal?" This is the way that successful agreements get concluded; but nobody outside the room should actually be privy to nitty gritty details of the negotiation, or you will make it impossible to ever deal with these people again. I repeat: your ratifying body has the right to know the final outcome upon which they will vote, but they selected you to go into the room, and the details of the conversation need to stay there.

Rule Five: Be prepared to accept "Yes" for an answer. NEVER put anything into your proposal that you don't really want them to accept. And recognize that when you put something in, and they agree to it, you've exhausted your options on that issue. Possibly you could have asked for more, and that knowledge will guide your proposal next time. But if you say, "This is what we want," and they say, "That's fine with us," then the ONLY response is, "Thanks." Example: If you want a travel stipend increased from $1,000 to $1,500, it is OK to ask for $2,000 and allow yourself to be bargained down. But if you ask for $1,500, and they give it to you, you don't get to say, "Wait a minute, since you're willing to give me $1,500, I want $1,800." You can say it, I guess, but if you do you will find that future negotiations get tougher and tougher for no apparent reason. Take what you wanted originally and don't get greedy.

No: I didn't write a book and I didn't get a shot on The Apprentice. But these five rules have served me, and those to whom I am responsible, well over the past several years.

1 comment:

RSmitty said...

Good stuff, Steve, but these rules are also commonsense negotiating. Unfortunately, in today's world, commonsense does not get the front seat all that often. This also reminded me of a little bit of the guest post I gave to Delaware Liberal on the heels of Rep Wilson's outburst. Relative to your post, where I put minority in the reference below, they would simply be replaced with the negotiating party asking for more or the party asking for concessions; it's usually the side with less leverage.

Being the minority never means you roll over and play dead, but it does mean that you don’t always get what you want; however, it also means that you need to work harder at shaping what you don’t want into something more palatable to your platform and you do so with the decorum that should be demanded by those who voted you into office!