Improve Your Negotiating Skills

As a tech lawyer, the thing that I do more than anything else is negotiate. Almost every time I take a phone call or meet with somebody, I'm negotiating something. Most people are so unskilled at it that sometimes it feels like taking candy from a baby.

This column will be the first in an occasional series on improving your negotiating skills, which are central to tech deals and litigation, and every other type of business deal.

Negotiating skills transfer to deals of all sizes. So, it could be your new multimillion dollar SaaS or outsourcing deal down to a much smaller cloud computing deal.

Getting Ready

It starts with preparation. Take the time to decide what you want and then chart a course for getting there. You rarely want to start by putting everything you need on the table. It's naive to think that there won't be give and take during the negotiating process.

You should also learn everything you can about the other side and the people representing the other side. The more you know about them, the more likely it is that you'll be able to satisfy their needs while taking care of your own.

In a complex negotiation, where you might have hundreds of items to discuss, you'll want to be sure to mix it up by discussing crucial points in between things you can give away. Resist the temptation to get the important stuff out of the way first.

In a negotiation, "information is power" is a cliché — and it's also absolutely true. Strategic information (in fact, any information) is something you should only give away parsimoniously and then only when you get some information back as a quid pro quo.

Sometimes I'll start a negotiation by saying, "Let's get the stuff that's really important to you first." It's often a good tactic because I'm making them feel loved while getting them to give me crucial information about their big issues. It's likely that until they were done telling me about the "important stuff," I didn't have an accurate picture of their agenda.

With this true picture of their big issues, the game begins. With these crucial issues identified, I now know the areas I'll have to give the most on. That's fine, but I'm going to make them stomach the things that are important to me in return for giving them what's important to them. Or maybe I won't.

I might keep them off balance by linking my little issues up to their big issues. If I do it this way, when that round is over, I've now given on issues I had to give on anyway and scored on lots of smaller issues.

What are now left are my big issues. With some dancing, I might be able to win on those points without having to give too much back -- because other items that they might hope to trade off on were already put to bed earlier in the negotiation.

While this may be a legitimate example of how a negotiation might proceed, it's also a gross oversimplification of the dynamic of a complex business negotiation. For one thing, when there are a hundred points on the table, a skilled negotiator never falls into the trap of agreeing that he can never revisit earlier points.

You shouldn't visualize your negotiation as a linear progression from one point to the next. Rather, it's arrows pointed in all directions linking points in the most unexpected ways. If you have to give on a particular point, then push back on something, maybe even something you had given on earlier. Never give without getting something back.

Be Quiet

People love to hear themselves talk, but a skillful negotiator listens. When you walk into that conference room to negotiate your big deal, or take that phone call to discuss your little deal, you already know what it is that you want. It's not important to make sure that the other side instantly knows that. What's important is that you learn their agenda and their needs. You've got to get inside their heads, and this requires listening.

Early in a negotiating session, you should ask open-ended questions and just listen. If you want to interrupt, don't. Let them talk. The more you listen, the more you learn.

I can't overemphasize this point enough. As we walk into a conference room, I'll often remind my client to listen. He assures me that he will listen. Then, no sooner are we done shaking hands and talking about the weather and my client won't shut up. Get the Pepto Bismol. He's got diarrhea of the mouth.

It's like a manager telling a boxer, "Jab, jab, jab." No sooner does the bell rings and he's out there flailing wildly.

You've got to take the game plan into the game. Write yourself a note if you have to. "Listen! Don't talk. Never interrupt."

As you work on improving your negotiating skills, remember that it begins with preparing, developing a game plan, listening a whole lot and talking very little. If you can just start with that, you'll be a much-improved negotiator.