Level the Playing Field in your Negotiations

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Several years ago, while still cutting my teeth as a Contracts Negotiator, a good friend of mine encouraged me to take a few courses from Harvard’s Program on Negotiation's.

One of the courses was “Dealing with Emotions in a Negotiation” and it touched on an issue that every negotiator will inevitably have to deal with, likely more than once in their career.

“Disrespect for One’s Authority”

As professionals we carry certain corporate designations earned by way of merit and experience. I’ve been an Analyst, Specialist, Manager and Director on every negotiation. Each of those titles came with a set of responsibilities and a level of authority.

Some could view the responsibilities as a burden, but everyone has a strong emotional attachment and sense of entitlement to the authority they feel they’ve earned. And when another person steps on that authority, or tries to take some of it away, the response is equally emotional and often irrational.

A study was conducted on the behavior of drivers in mall parking lots, specifically with regards to pulling in and out of parking spaces. The study found that drivers were more patient waiting for a car to pull out of a space if the car they were waiting for was more expensive than what they were driving.

Conversely, drivers would display a greater sense of urgency (and in some cases, real anxiety) if there was an expensive car waiting for them to pull out.

The car we drive, the suit we wear, our watch and our shoes all reflect our perceived level of authority with regards to those things. As Negotiators, we also have a perceived sense of authority and we’re constantly trying to assert it over our counter-parts on the other side of the table.

And when we feel that our authority has been compromised, by way of a belittling remark or condescending gesture, it’s our response to the affront that often sets the table for the rest of the negotiation.

An acquaintance told me how she once dealt with such an affront.

As a young, up-and-coming lawyer at a top firm she was given the task of representing a client’s management team in a critical negotiation with their Labour Union.

The Union had hired one of the prominent Labour lawyers in the country whose reputation as a tough, no-nonsense negotiator was the stuff of legends.

She scheduled a meeting at her office for 9am on a Monday. She arrived at 8am to find a very nervous looking receptionist, who informed her that her counter-part was already there and waiting in the conference room.

When she entered, he was sitting at the table reading a newspaper. She walked over to him with her hand outstretched. 

“Good morning! I’m…”

“I know who you are” he interrupted without looking up “Why don’t you grab me a coffee and we can get started”

She froze. Her authority had been assaulted. With a few words and a subtle gesture he’d reduced her role that of a clerk and tilted the playing field in his favor.

What to do? Showing anger would portray her as emotional and inexperienced. Doing as she was told would be a sign of weakness. 

She pulled back her hand, quickly gathered herself and replied:

“You know what, that’s a good idea. I’ll get us both some coffee while you grab the doughnuts”

Balanced restored.

We’re human beings and we have emotions. It’s how we handle our emotions that makes all the difference in negotiations.

Have you ever had your authority challenged in a negotiation? What was your reaction? What was the result? I would love to hear from you.

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