How to behave in a negotiation when the other party is more powerful than you
Anxiety, nervousness, insecurity… Are these feelings familiar? And what’s the reason for all of these feelings? Tomorrow’s 11 o’clock meeting with John, one of the senior business partners, to discuss the costs for that interesting MBA programme. Not only is John your boss, he’s also great with words, and a tough nut to crack when it comes to spending money: all in all, someone that you see as more powerful than you. So instead of sleeping, you spent your night thinking about all the possible outcomes of this meeting.
The Hollywood version of events would of course be: 1) a beautifully crafted tough-love pep talk that pumps up your ego, 2) you walking, or should I say striding, into the room full of confidence, handling all issues and attempts to wipe the topic off the table with a cool smile and a rational and measured answer, and 3) the grand finale, you convincing John of the added value of the MBA for your career and the organisation. All costs covered of course. The reality, however, is a different story, with buzzwords such as shaking knees, trembling voice, feeling powerless and agreeing to an unfavourable deal.
How can you break out of this vicious cycle? How can you transition from being the victim to being in charge? What will the new screenplay be?
Before the negotiation
Our self-image determines our behaviour: wise words that hit the nail on the head when it comes to negotiations. If you aren’t convinced yourself, how can you expect to convince someone else? Who says he’s more powerful than you are? Maybe he just wants to test how motivated you are before giving you the Yes you’re longing for. That’s why a good dose of self-reflection is essential. Which irrational beliefs and thoughts does the other party trigger in you and how can you free your filter of these influences? A negotiation dictated by emotional baggage, is a negotiation doomed to fail. Instead, write down positive associations and indisputable facts and spend some time finding similarities between you and your counterpart. It will work wonders.
You have probably heard this more often than you can take, and yet it is the key to taking charge of a negotiation: preparation is 90% of success. The most important part of that is thinking of an alternative. If you start a negotiation from a position of pure dependence, then it is not a negotiation, and you better walk away fast. Instead, take a look at your alternatives and decide which one is more favourable to you (for all negotiation-literature enthusiasts, we are of course talking about the BATNA - best alternative to a negotiated agreement). When looking for an alternative, think outside the box and make things as concrete as possible (If you aren’t willing to pay everything, can we split the costs or decrease my salary by a small amount every month? If I can’t do this programme, which other training programmes can I do?) Once you have your BATNA, define the different issues that come into play in the negotiation and assess their relative value to you and to the other party. Knowing the value of certain elements enables you to create different offers, and to look for trade-offs during the negotiation.
In addition to these basic elements, prepare your circle of influence. Map out your own stakeholders and those of the other party to assess whether you’re actually the right person to lead the negotiation. Is there someone in your circle of influence with more power or with a more favourable relationship?
The key to balancing power during the negotiation is asking questions. One of the most popular mistakes of today’s all too verbal world is the assumption that the one who talks is the one who leads the conversation. Nothing could be less true. By asking the right questions, you put the other in the talking chair and thus in the position to explain, share and reveal information. Starting off the negotiation with the simple question: “I clearly understand that I need you, which leaves me with: why do you need me in this company?” shows that you assign value to yourself and therefore works wonders. Questions are of course best paired with silence from your side. When you do make the choice to speak, it can help to phrase your arguments in a way that highlights the positive value for the other party. So instead of stressing your unique selling points, point out the "buying reasons" for them (“By doing this MBA, I will be more knowledgeable” rephrased to: “With this MBA, I can broaden my knowledge which will mean we can expand our range of services and therefore increase our sales.”). The word because is an especially positive trigger.
On a behavioural level, building rapport is vital. Paying attention to the other person’s body language and physically mirroring the behaviour you see is one part of this. Another is congruency. Responding to dominant behaviour by immediately backing down and rolling on your back with your paws in the air, will only put you in the victim role. In line with that, taking the role of the child when the other party starts playing the parent (“I know what’s best for you”) will obviously not lead to an adult conversation. Whatever you do, add a large dose of acknowledgment to the mix in order to (re)connect to the other on a personal level.
Lastly, the physical setting can often make or break a negotiation. Try meeting in a neutral environment free from the other party’s power symbols and sitting at a 90% angle instead of directly opposite each other.
Of course, while useful, these steps aren’t a bulletproof recipe for success. Should things get rough, remember this tip that one of our international clients shared with us:
“When I feel the other party is more powerful, I simply picture them in an every-day situation such a brushing their teeth or hurrying to the bathroom. This makes them seem human again and I regain control.”
Feeling ready for that 11 o’clock meeting tomorrow? And the OSCAR for lead role in “the negotiation” goes to ...
Side note: Negotiation for women
For most women, analysing the personal circle of influence is an especially crucial step. Women have the tendency to ask for less in a negotiation or even to feel guilty for sticking to their guns and not giving in to the other party. However, studies have shown that this changes drastically in representative negotiations. So ladies, think about who is personally affected by your success and whose interests you can therefore represent in your next negotiation.
Input from Krauthammer consultants: René Keller, Lidi van Dessel, Thijs Westerkamp, Joost van Veluwen, Agnes Galambos, Eric Hooftman, Fabien Albaladejo.
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