Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Q6: Can Good Communication Save You Money? - Natural Negotiation

I was running a course on empathy skills a few years back with a group of young doctors, when we were asked to vacate our room. So it was a cause for relief, and some celebration, when I managed to negotiate a larger room for us - including biscuits. And when it emerged later over coffee (and biscuits) that I was on the brink of leasing a gorgeous new car, something really caught the doctors' curiosity. Could there be a link between empathy and negotiation? Did my skills operate beyond biscuits - and if so, how far?
Beyond Biscuits
So when - by luck or judgement - I landed a rather splendid offer on the car deal, they naturally wanted to know more. 

Last month, I found myself trading in that very car, and once again, I needed to stand my ground over money. This was hot on the heels of a different negotiation, this time with my bank, who had promised me an offer and then withdrawn it. Both were potentially awkward situations in which I might have been indignant, even outraged. Yet both interactions went smoothly; and I was left thinking of the young doctors and the empathy skills I had taught them. 
It's a curious thing, even counter-intuitive, that empathy helps when we're 'standing up for our rights'. Even in the hard world of business and finance, when we have a clear sense of our own needs, it's empathy which really determines the direction the conversation takes. This forms the basis for a process I refer to in my courses as natural negotiation (Learn Negotiation)
The Human Factor
In the case of the car sales rep, he'd given me a price to conclude the lease agreement, but now his manager was adamant the sum was too low. I'd need to pay more, and that was that. But I believe in negotiation, so I phoned my original sales rep back. Naturally, he guessed there was trouble. Beneath his professionally friendly phone manner, he knew I wouldn't like what he had to tell me. It's hard for anyone to enjoy communication in those circumstances. Like most human beings, he felt bad saying 'no'.
Time with the other Person 
So instead of arguing my case, I moved onto his ground.
'You're in a difficult position!' I offered, 'I don't envy you.'
'Too right!' he burst out, surprised perhaps that I wasn't yelling. And he went on to explain his first over-optimistic estimate and his manager's later revision. 

Listening calmly, I could see the strength of his business argument (I really was getting a good deal at the lower price); and I could empathise with his professional position (silently, I wondered about his next performance review). Above all, he told me anxiously, he wanted his customers to be happy. That washis job satisfaction. I believed him, too. He was between a rock and a hard place. As I offered my simple empathic guesses, his relief was tangible.

The Jury is Out
I could empathise with him easily at that moment because I was confident of one important thing: I had not let go of my own needs. I had simply tucked them under my wing, out of sight, and given full reign to his. At this stage of the conversation, the jury was out. I truly didn't know if I would achieve the outcome I wanted, even though it was a significant one for me financially. Instead, my focus was on the friendly interaction that was emerging naturally as one person tried to understand another. No tricks, no games. Just understanding. And as I engaged in this way with the car salesman, another of my own key needs ignited, and slipped into gear: my wish for him to be okay too.
My 'Need for You'
When we are in good connection with folk around, we have a root human need to know that they are okay. So even if a conversation clashes with what we want for ourselves, a warm connection causes a shift in our intentions and motivations. We naturally begin to take in other people's needs and perspectives. In my case, I found myself sympathising with my car rep - the very guy who was trying to charge me more! 

Stating My Agenda
Now it was easy to tell him my side. In this friendly atmosphere, he was happy to listen. I explained that I run my own business, and that I place a high value on keeping the agreements I make with my clients, even if that involves a mistake or a loss on my side. None of this was said to persuade. I was simply sharing my truth, my perspective. 

So I was genuinely touched when he took up my cause, and went off to consult with his manager. As I was giving up my car completely, he had no motivation to retain me as a customer. It was sheer good will that was driving the negotiation. He came back enlivened and cheerful. His manager had agreed to the lower offer.  

A Paradox
There's a paradox at the heart of communication. I have conversations which save me money, or bring me practical benefit. Yet (and here's the contradiction) the most satisfying feature is the interaction itself. That friendly connection with the car salesman; in the case of my bank (tiny individual takes on giant corporation!), the positive pride I felt as the bank manager really understood my values, and acted on them. 
While our urban myths might propagate Mr Nasty as the best money-winner, I disagree. It isn't self-centred hard-headedness which really wins in negotiation. When empathy is present, negotiation happens naturally. That's another attitude altogether. 


  1. Hi!
    Great work!! But what would you have done if he had come back and said "not possible" (after all, you were then relying on him having good empathy/negotiations with his manager)?

    Also I think I might have found it hard to not "lose my rag" at that point, had he come back with a negative response (or indeed in the first place!) - any tips on how to make sure you communicate in a non-violent manner when you're "in the heat of the moment"?

  2. Hi Elena. Your question really goes to the heart of negotiation. What IS the negotiating space about? I'm suggesting that it involves juggling two separate things.

    On the one hand, we keep hold of OUR perspectives and needs. We don't lose sight of those. On the other hand, we genuinely hear the other person's perspectives and needs, and keep those in mind. (We discover other people’s needs through spending time 'on their mountain', that is, with empathy.) The genuine negotiating space includes BOTH: my needs AND the other person's.

    When people hear each other's perspectives and needs, with no judgements as to which is better or worse, then the natural response is to try to find ways to meet those needs. When both parties are doing this, then you can see that a solution is easy to reach.

    This is different from traditional negotiation approaches based on compromise. Compromise often has a limited or limiting sense; that someone - perhaps everyone – will need to give up or give in on important issues.

    Instead, natural negotiation results in creative discussions of possibilities. When all the cards are on the table, so that we see the situation as a whole, a different perspective emerges. We get the whole picture. Then it's natural for us to shift our position to encompass this wider perspective. This comes with a sense of ease and congruence. It feels natural.

    Now, I admit I don't know how I would have responded if the car rep had come back and said 'not possible'. By definition, a true negotiating space means we hold the solution open. It can sound like a courageous or crazy thing to do. We really are stepping into the unknown, rather than fixing our outcomes and results beforehand. And yet it’s the only way to really hear and respect the needs of the other party; and this is the only way to build enough trust to negotiate. This process of letting go is what I meant when I said ‘the jury is out’.

    But at a guess, I may have done one of two things.

    I may have persisted, by not letting go of my needs. This means, I may have asked to talk directly to his manager (or the one above him, etc). Since the atmosphere was friendly and obliging, I know I could have asked in a non-threatening, non-antagonistic way.

    Or I may have got the impression that the needs on the company’s side were too complex: a mixture of local and national strictures, and so decided to accept the way things are for them at that time. I may have felt sorry or frustrated about that – and even made sure they knew that. But with this perspective, I could have let go of my agenda with good grace. I’d walk away with my dignity in tact, and a sense that I'd tried my best. (I may even have decided that there are objective limits to how far negotiations work with large companies. Yet interestingly, this is not my general experience – either with the car company, with my international bank, or with other companies I have negotiated with.)

    What I DO know is that if I had lost my rag, I wouldn’t have been in a true negotiation in the first place. Something vital would have been missing from the negotiating space. If I ask someone to do something, and then feel cross if they can't, then I know that am not really making friendly requests – I’m actually issuing covert demands! And if I’m doing that, it means I am referring only to my own needs, and losing touch with theirs.

    So the learning for me here is to check and double check; Am I really negotiating? Or am I trying to 'get my own way', by clever means!

    True negotiation is utterly creative. We never know the outcome before we enter into it. And the process often produces results we could never predict. And like other sorts of creativity, it is innately satisfying in itself.

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