The art of negotiation

The art of negotiation

I recently attended a talk organised by Agile Welly  “Negotiating without shooting yourself in the foot” by negotiation coach, Stuart van Rij

As Stuart began to explain how to setup a negotiation to get a good outcome, I became very aware that I go through a similar setup to get a good outcome for the teams and individuals that I coach.

In fact, I view the role I perform in most meetings as lying somewhere between facilitator and negotiator. A coach often sits in the middle between two parties, for a software product that’s between those who want something built and those that are building it. If both parties are to get a good outcome, the coach cannot act as the arbiter or judge of what is good and what is not. Instead they act as a processor and reflector of what is being exchanged between the two. The coach is impartial, yet invested in getting a positive outcome for both parties.

With reference to Stuart’s talk, I thought I would look at the setup a negotiator goes through prior to a negotiation and explain how that is similar to the setup a coach would perform for a team meeting.

Stuart explained that three things that you can do that will effect the process of negotiation and are likely to lead to a positive outcome:

1. Remove need

Neediness creates vulnerability. This effects your listening, thinking, focus and will cloud your judgement. It’s not good to be needy if you’re trying to negotiate or act as a negotiator. Sounding needy can have one of two effects on people in a negotiation. Either alarm bells go off and they will withdraw, or they hear needy and their predator instinct will come to the fore.

Bottom line,  if you aren’t prepared to say no, you’re probably being needy. Try to reframe from need to want.

From a coach’s perspective if we are tied to a particular outcome and we try to drive the team or individuals toward this outcome, then we will come across as needy. This will ultimately set the team on edge and they will either back away from the suggestion with a heavy dose of skepticism or they will take advantage of your neediness.

For example, the business are disappointed with the speed of delivery and need the team to deliver faster by increasing the velocity. If as a coach we try to drive the team to deliver faster without fully understanding their perspective, they are likely to see us as unreasonable and disengage. At the other end of the spectrum, the team hear the need and decide to take advantage of the situation. Because trust has been broken, they will probably take measures to protect themselves, for example increase the level of contract between them and the business. Neither option gets an outcome that is mutually beneficial for either the team or the business.

2. Help them hold the vision

No vision, no decision. If the people who are in a negotiation don’t hold a vision of the opportunity available to them, they are unlikely to be able to make a decision. Before negotiation starts we need to ask ourselves “who must see what now?” We need to think about how we’re going to discover and shape what they want to see. During the negotiation we are able to help them own the vision by asking them open and powerful questions. The type that Lyssa Adkins talks about in “Coaching Agile Teams” and CTI train their coaches to use in their Co-active Coaching model. We need 2 to 3 good questions.

Stuart pointed to a number of good examples. For example, this blog by Seth Godin asks what is most powerful question a Girl Scout going door to door selling cookies could ask? Selling door-to-door is a hard enough for an adult, for a child it can be terrifying, but Godin says that in less than 10 words – “What’s your favourite kind of Girl Scout cookie?” – you can increase your chance of selling by more than double. Why? Because that one question will immediately make us start to think of our previous cookie experiences, the smell, the taste, we may even start to salivate.

An open question this powerful immediately allows the other party to own the vision. This moves the negotiation far beyond a simple exchange of money to where the potential purchaser actually imagines what those cookies would smell and taste like. At that point they will realise the value of those cookies and exchanging money for that experience will come much easier.

As a coach we seek to help the team to find solutions that work for them. As with a negotiation, the parties involved are far more likely to follow through with something if they had a part in creating it. To do this we help them create a vision of the problem that helps them see all sides. This then helps them find a solution that will be mutually beneficial.

3. Focus on the controllable

You can only control what you can control, which isn’t much, including the outcome. If you can, don’t be attached to a particular outcome as it creates neediness (see point 1). Therefore, focus on your behaviour, the thing you can control. Ways to approach this:

  • No talking – talk less, listen. This is something we do as coaches, we ask ourselves why are we listening? Are we listening because we waiting for our turn to talk or are listening because we genuinely want to hear the other person’s point of view? More importantly are we listening so that we are able to facilitate an exchange of views?
  • Blank slate – don’t hold any positive or negative assumptions.
  • 3+ your questions, i.e. ask the question in 3 different ways to ensure you have all the information you need.

I actively work on the facilitating and negotiating aspect of my role. If the coach is less than impartial, there will be a break down in trust and the negotiation for the desired outcome will fail. The important thing is that we prep for meetings and get ourselves into the right mindset.

One coach I know joked they had a four step process to meeting preparation – on the final four steps of entering a meeting, their thoughts turned to how they would facilitate it.

This joke isn’t too far from the truth, once you have method that works and you’re practiced enough, it doesn’t take long to get into the right mindset.

Step 1: Ask yourself what do the attendees need from this meeting?

Step 2: Ask yourself what do you need from this meeting? Think about how you want to be and act to get the best outcome for everyone involved.

Step 3: Have a genuine curiosity and remember to ask open questions.

Step 4: Leave your stuff at the door.