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Employee Engagement

By David Freedman, Associate Director at Huthwaite International

The election fall-out – in terms of the alliances that people have to form at Westminster and in the wider political nation – has not been quite what everyone expected. Until last Friday, we were confidently looking forward to a few weeks of coalition-forming machinations between the grandees of the major and minor parties. Instead, while there are going to be negotiations, they are going to be of a different kind.

First, there will be negotiations within the governing party which, having an overall majority of 12, will need to assuage, reassure, and trade with its MPs to ensure it remains that way.

Former cabinet minister Peter Lilley noted this week that governing parliamentary parties had grown progressively more rebellious since 1970. Nowadays, he suggested, email and social media give MPs a far clearer and more immediate idea of the feelings of their constituents, to set against the requirements of the whips’ office.

So while the government will need the support of its 331 MPs at all times, they might not see their interests as best served by supporting everything the front bench does. The degree of negotiation skill on each side of the debate will determine how much either side gains. In fact, the real measure of a successful negotiation is that both sides should see valuable payoffs.

Secondly, for the parties that lost votes, seats and leaders, a different kind of negotiation and persuasion beckons, as they try to regroup organisationally and philosophically.

So whether in or out of government, interactive verbal behavioural skill will be required. What do we mean by verbal behavioural skill, particularly in negotiations?

This has been the subject of ongoing study for us for many decades. We have profiled the way people express themselves through the words they use and correlated that to the outcomes of their negotiations – typically but not exclusively in a commercial context.

One of the most important of the original observational findings was that exchanging information is a complex phase of the negotiation. When the quality of the solution is vital, or the maintenance of a good relationship is important or you don’t have much power to enforce the outcome then it’s best to adopt what we call a “pull” style.

That means ceding more airtime to the people you are negotiating with, and using your own airtime to ask questions that will help you towards a better understanding of their position, and how you might move towards it at as little cost as possible. Skilled negotiators use this “seeking information” behaviour 21.3% of the time, where average negotiators do so only 9.6% of the time.

Seeking information purposefully is a very useful skill in the context of another finding. The original observational research found that skilled negotiators make far fewer (roughly half as many) counterproposals than average. That’s important because counterproposals are usually ineffective. They come at the other person’s least receptive time when they are looking for a considered reaction not – in effect – a disagreement. The other person has made their carefully constructed proposal for a reason.

If you are to come up with a persuasive alternative, you’ll need to create doubt in their mind first, and the best way to do that is through the right questioning strategy.

In our global survey last year involving 1300 respondents in 52 countries, we presented people with a situation where they could greet a proposal with a direct counterproposal. Most respondents who were happy to use this behaviour were, by their own admission, unsuccessful negotiators (this “unsuccessful” group being 56% of the overall sample).

The successful negotiators in the study were more likely to ask questions at this point, while less successful negotiators were more likely either to stand their ground, request the other side to present their case or give a presentation of their own case.

In response to a proposal, skilled negotiators tend to explore the other side’s underlying interests in order to understand what’s driving them to make that proposal, and also to try and work out what the proposal is worth to both sides. In large complex negotiations people are often not ready for a proposal, and may need to call a pause so that they can take it away and review it, before coming back with a response. In negotiations where there are several issues involved, effective negotiators can link them together in ways that enhance the value of the deal for both sides.

As part of those continuing discussions, an important product of our research concerns the use of what we term “Irritators”, and this has implications for salespeople, purchasing people, politicians and – for that matter – anyone else. In our book an Irritator is: “A behaviour that has the potential to irritate through self-praise and condescension”.

Into the self-praise category fall such easy throwaway remarks as: “it’s a very fair offer”, “I’m trying hard to be co-operative”, “I’m giving you a really competitive hourly rate”, “…because you know I’m best qualified to lead our supporters”, or “I’m sure you’ll find we’re offering you a good basis for a settlement here”. These phrases are heavily loaded as a subjective self-analysis of the speaker’s own position.

Words like “fair” and “generous” are relative. If everyone interpreted the offer in the same way as you, there would be no need for negotiation.

Skilled negotiators use Irritators 2% of the time, the average negotiator does so 11%. And in our 2014 research, 10% fewer successful negotiators used irritators than unsuccessful negotiators.

Negotiation can become emotive. In business, your quarterly bonus might be hanging by a thread, depending on the terms of one big deal.

In politics, you believe passionately that society should follow a particular path, and now you’re in a room with colleagues who are pressuring you to slaughter your sacred policy cows. . And while some believe that good negotiators suppress their feelings, that expressing them is a sign of weakness, Huthwaite’s research proved the opposite: being open about how you are feeling is a verbal behaviour employed by good negotiators.

Skilled negotiators are more likely to comment on their own feelings, saying something like, “I’m not sure how to react to the information you’ve just given; I would like to accept it, but I am a little concerned about its accuracy. Can we just check it?”. It was also used instead of disagreeing behaviour, for example, saying “I’m very worried that we seem to be so far apart on this particular point…” instead of disagreeing flatly with it.

Successful negotiators are far more likely to say things like “I’m delighted that we’ve made progress on the first three items…”or “I’m disappointed that you haven’t given the matter of reform of the Barnett Formula careful consideration …”.

The observational data, and the training that Huthwaite gives to hundreds of companies and thousands of delegates all over the world, shows that revealing information about your internal thoughts and feelings is an advisable approach because it is impossible for the other side to refute, it helps set a trusting climate for discussion, and it can be a useful alternative to outright disagreement.

Skilled negotiators do it 50% more than the average. And yet, when Huthwaite completed the 2014 global study, we discovered that barely half of all respondents thought it was a behaviour they should use. Worse, when presented with a negotiation scenario in which they had the opportunity to give feelings, only 20% actually did so.

Clearly, while we can show what good looks like, not everybody is quite ready to win their next big negotiation yet.

DAVID FREEDMAN is Associate Director at Huthwaite International. He has worked for Huthwaite International for 13 years, helping many of the world’s largest companies to improve their sales performance and strengthen their negotiation skills. He is currently involved in many major bids, in marketing projects and in spearheading the company’s drive into the professional services marketplace.

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