Negotiating With Empathy & Respect Doesn’t Make You Weak

Stop fearing negotiations! Learn how to reframe them from conflict to mutual respect and empathy, save face, and both walk out winners.

The sexy part of procurement is often seen as the negotiation phase

It’s the part of the project where the junior employees (who have done all the grunt work) are pulled off the project and senior management dusts off their suits and are rolled in for the “heavy lifting”. The outcome of which often goes one of two ways: either champagne is popped at the close of negotiations or, alternatively, someone mysteriously disappears to “seek opportunities elsewhere”.

But, negotiations are built off a myth. Let’s explore this by starting with a question.

What’s your reaction to the thought of having to lead a negotiation?

If you said “panic”, you wouldn’t be alone. 

We can all relate to this scenario: your stakeholder is happy with the procurement process that’s been completed … but there’s one thing. The pricing needs to be negotiated and some of the terms need to be pushed back on. Actually, there are a few areas the business owner has decided need to be sorted before the contract can be signed.

This is the point when terror can creep in. You don’t know if you’re ready for an all out war with the supplier – in fact, you’d be happy to concede some points if you gained ground on some of the more important areas.

Negotiation is wrapped in a myth and it’s time we bust it open.

Negotiation myth

Negotiating is typically seen as:

  • Something you have to learn through a course
  • A persona you have to become, leaving your “normal” self at the door
  • Hard, serious, take-no-prisoners approach
  • Directly correlated to your career success or failure
  • Confrontational
  • A considerable investment in time, effort and resources

Time and place

There are projects that do warrant an approach outlined above, where the stereotypical negotiation style needs to be adopted but it’s not needed for all negotiations. There are other areas of traditional negotiations that are important too, like negotiation plans, checklists and planning / rehearsing meetings.

Here’s an idea: what if we started to adopt a negotiation style that was built on mutual respect, where it doesn’t matter what the other side represents or may be plotting? What if we bring our authentic selves to the negotiation table?

Saving face

Saving face is a concept used to describe the facet of a person’s image that they want to retain: it’s connected to their identity and dignity. Nobody wants to be made a fool of or shown up. Saving face is about respecting that human desire. In negotiations, if there is awareness of saving face it can lead to better outcomes as both sides retain their image and reputation.

Negotiating with empathy

Here are some alternatives to the stereotypical negotiation blood bath:

  • Don’t call it a negotiation. Pick up the phone and structure a conversation around finalising the contract. “We’re almost at the finish line, I just want to run a couple of things by you to tidy up some loose ends so we can proceed to signing.”
  • If it’s about price, be honest. You’ll save a lot more time if you can give percentage thresholds where your business would have more comfort. “Look to be honest, you’re at least 10-20% above where our CE would feel comfortable proceeding. Other bids have come in closer to our mark but it’s your methodology and solution we’re seeking to proceed with.”
  • In New Zealand they often open meetings with the Maori custom of a mihi which shares who they are, where they come from, which acts as an offer to create a mutual meeting space where all are equal. Could you start the meeting with an informal conversation to shift the environment? Or share something from your own culture?
  • If you’re struggling with someone on the other side of the fence try something that will speak to the person they are, not the role they are playing. Flattering their experience in their field can act as a good way in “clearly you have extensive experience in this area, [begin your point]…”
  • Empathising with their view to show you hear and understand them. “We can see that it’s important to your business to guarantee continuity of supply and we can understand where you’re coming from. We need to ensure x,y,z. Is there a mutual place we can agree on?”
  • Syntax is important. An old tip from the pros is to use the word “and” instead of “but”. The latter implies that you are about to contradict what you just said and also disregard their point of view. “And” implies that you are joining two views together.
  • Research active listening and practice it for a week or so before your negotiation meeting. 

The tips for moving negotiation towards empathy and away from confrontation are centred around respect principles. Give it a try and share your tips in the comments below.