It’s Negotiation, Not Hardball – Part 1

Is being a “good negotiator” a good thing?


Probably not if we consider a good negotiator as hard-nosed. “Hard negotiator” hardly conjures up a friendly picture; we might just anticipate a game of hardball! Faced with this, some of us dread the idea of negotiating.

Yet Negotiation is one of the top skills to learn in wish lists! This suggests we see negotiation as valuable, even when it makes us uncomfortable.

Like many soft skills, we can negotiate with minimal energy and minimal stress. Here’s how:

Negotiating sets out to reach agreement, not winning at someone else’s expense. So the aim is to break down barriers and build relationships.

3 things that hinder negotiation are:

  • Use of unhelpful and distancing language
  • Lack of rapport between the 2 parties
  • The detail – be it too much, not enough or misunderstandings about 

Here we cover how tempo and using the 80:20 to play it softly – for reaching a solid outcome:

1. Tempo

The tempo can build the relationship. Negotiation is a conversation, not a men’s tennis final.  Top-spinning the ball dramatically across the net is working towards winner and 2nd place, not win-win.

Negotiation works better with the gentle tempo of a game of throw and catch rather than a rampant rally. An underarm throw..careful return throw is more melodic. In dialogue the stages are “ a response..deliver response..listen..” and mutual respect is more likely to develop.

This allows for careful ingestion of concepts, in a rhythm. Not the abrupt and exhausting of jumpting in, looking where to attach with the momentum of a “thwack..aargh..double-handed-backhand-thwack..aargh.” 

2. Using the 80:20 

The 80:20 principle, or Pareto’s Law, proposes that from 80% of our input we gain 20% of our output and from 20% of our input we gain 80% of our output. When negotiating, here are 2 heavy hitters to gain more from less:

a) Listening

It’s hard to listen intently and think well at the same time because our brain works so quickly:

  • We speak at 150-200 words per minute*
  • We listen at 400-500 words per minute*
  • We think at 500-3000 words per minute**
  • We screen 70-90% of what we hear 
  • We hear 25-50% of a conversation 

In conversation our mind get off-point quickly with our thinking capacity being 4 times our speaking capacity. This explains why it’s so hard to listen accurately only to what the other person is saying – we’re tempted to add our context.

By acutely listening, we hear clues and throw-away comments. This takes concentration. It builds relationships. It’s less exhausting than trying to talk only to beat the other person’s point. This only sets back both the relationship and our comprehension.

b) Pausing

Pausing is easier. Plus, it’s powerful; when we’re quiet, the other person is tempted (in our extrovert society) to bridge the gap. Whilst they create sentences to form further argument, we just sit back and listen.

We’re not playing to win. We don’t need to. By relaxing our need for control (leaving someone else trying harder to win) we compute and concoct. It’s easier than composing argument whilst digesting what we’re hearing.

Listening, pausing and calculating can point energy towards more output rather than trying to out-wit the other side, repeating an argument and fighting for airtime. .

To follow through, we need to prepare for all parts of our negotiating conversation. Just how an athlete looks at their opening, mid and closing efforts in a race, their play or game, we need strength throughout for a constant performance. But, unlike sport, in negotiation we want win-win more than “I win, you lose.” 

Not playing hardball isn’t so much treading “softly softly” but using softer skills, firstly by checking our talking tempo. Then, by applying the 80:20 by listening and pausing we can make negotiation more controlled and more comfortable – for all.

Next time, in Part 2 we look at the “Power of Permission” in Negotiating.

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*Business Communication, Krizan, Merrier, Logan and Williams

**Humanities and Communication Skills, Pearson Education 500-750 wpm / High Gain Inc. research 1000-3000 wpm.

Other listening statistics widely cited including separate research by Shorpe, Hunsaker and Robinson.


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