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3 steps to better negotiating

11 April 2017

Negotiating might be central to a solicitor’s role, and to be a good negotiator you need to be able to hone your selling technique. Ciarán Fenton provides a 3-step guide


All solicitors are negotiators. But not all solicitors are good negotiators in all situations. One general counsel told me that many solicitors in his team struggle to see the bigger picture in negotiations, are too narrowly focused, and consequently lose the plot.

Good negotiation is about securing a win-win outcome, not win-lose. This necessarily involves compromise and, above all, an ability to sell. Many solicitors achieve much less than they could because they hate the process of selling. They fear rejection, are uncomfortable asking for anything, and don’t know how to sell well.Good selling technique is essentially about needs analysis. This can be broken down into 3 steps.  

Find out how the other side feels

The other side’s needs may not be logical or rational, but they are always driven by feelings.

Ask lots of open, ‘biased’ questions – Who? What? When? Where? How? Listen to the nuances of the feelings expressed in the answers. You must listen carefully, not just to catch someone out, but to understand them.   

You can check that you have ‘bottomed out’ their needs by using two simple techniques. First, briefly summarise back to them your understanding of their needs. If you get it right, watch for a physical response – often a nod. This, as the psychologists tell us, is the involuntary sign people give when they feel heard.   

The second technique, which I have used in negotiations and found works every time, is when you feel you’ve asked the last question, ask one more. This stretch will usually bring to the surface a deeper truth.

Demonstrate how your proposal will meet their needs

This step is short, because it’s straightforward, albeit difficult: demonstrate, rather than assert, how your proposal will meet their specific needs, as well as your own.   

Close the gap between their needs and your proposal

Start by asking: ‘If 10 is having a deal, and 0 is not having one, where are we now?’. Unless things have gone horribly wrong, the typical answer is ‘7’. Next, ask: ‘What has to happen for us all to turn the 7 into a 10?’. And then, say nothing. This silence is crucial. No matter how uncomfortable the silence becomes, don’t break it except to repeat the question. They will fill the silence.

When you are clear on the points which make up the gap, address each point carefully in turn. There are various techniques you can use to close the gap, but the most important is to remind the other side about the shared purpose of the negotiation. This purpose can get lost in the heat of the negotiation. Unless there is a shared purpose, there isn’t a negotiation. It’s an imposition.

(Small) change your behaviour

Confront which part of the selling process you hate most, and why. Once you have isolated your fear and its origin, the final step is to become comfortable observing your process or, to use the current jargon, to be mindful. Mindfulness is about separating yourself from your thinking, as in: ‘There I go again not asking for what I want, just demanding it’, but in a manner which is not self-destructive.  

Then you can to start making small changes in your behaviour – say, changing 1 interaction in every 10. That’s a small change, but it’s worthwhile, because it creates a virtuous cycle: the more you change yourself, the more success you will have in your negotiations.

A longer version of this article was first published in the January 2017 edition of InsideOut, the online magazine of the Law Society’s In-house Division, our community for in-house lawyers

View our Advocacy Section webinar onnegotiation

Tags: strategy | communication | team | productivity | morale

About the author

Ciarán Fenton is a leadership and behavioural change consultant

Visit ciaranfenton.com

Follow Ciarán Fenton on Twitter

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