Negotiators Don’t Fail to Prepare, They Fail to Cover All Bases

Negotiators Don’t Fail to Prepare, They Fail to Cover All Bases

The key to almost anything in life is good preparation. The same goes for negotiations. In my experience, very few negotiators neglect to take adequate time to prepare. Almost all negotiators think through the outcome they’re looking to achieve and how they’re going to get there.

The challenge is effective preparation. All too often, negotiation preparations tend to be one-sided. In this article, I want to discuss three considerations that should be made before any negotiation begins.

What Does Good Look Like for You?

If you ask negotiators what the goal of the negotiation is for them, they’ll usually be able to tell you in detail. Any negotiator worth their salt will be able to articulate what they want clearly and succinctly.

A good negotiator should also have a clear understanding of what it would take for them to modify their ideal outcome. Taking the time to understand up-front the potential terms on the table that could change your mind helps you to know what good looks like for you. What is a hard requirement? What’s a deal-breaker and what could you be swayed on?

Your ideal outcome and the deal that you may be prepared to reach a compromise on don’t have to be the same thing. Make sure you know what a good deal looks like for you. Make sure you know what a reasonable deal looks like for you. Be clear on these things. But don’t stop there.

What Does Good Look Like for Them?

Knowing what you want to achieve is only the first part of the equation. Do you know what the other party wants to achieve? It’s an important question and one that many negotiators are sketchy on.

Knowing what the other party wants to achieve, or at least making an educated guess at it, means that you have more opportunity to think through what outcomes might be possible and how you can achieve the best result.

Scotwork’s Negotiating Capability Survey tell us that negotiators can be remiss in their preparation when it comes to filling knowledge gaps about their counterpart. Not only is it important to consider what the counterpart wants, but you need a mechanism to test those assumptions.

Walking into the negotiation room without understanding what motivates your counterpart puts you on the back foot before you even enter. You won’t have a clue what you might have to offer that interests the other party. Ultimately, you’re prolonging the negotiation time, which is avoidable with the right preparation. You’re also unlikely to leave with the feeling that all parties have gotten the best outcome that they can.

A good negotiator knows what they want as an outcome. A great negotiator knows what the counterpart wants as an outcome.

What About the ‘What Ifs’?

You know what you want, and you know what they want. You even know the points that you’re each likely to be swayed on. There’s still one more key component in your preparation. Ask the “what if” questions.

Think of all the possible curveballs that could come your way. Think of the extremes. Then think of everything in between. While you won’t be able to anticipate them all, taking the time up front to think about these potential hazards will save you time later.

By asking the all-important “what if” questions, you’ll understand your own limitations. What if they ask for something that I know I can’t agree to? What if it’s a deal-breaker? At the end of this process, you’ll know the point to which you’ll keep negotiating and the point at which you’ll walk away.

Cover All of Your Bases

You’d be surprised how few people prepare effectively for a negotiation. It’s not enough to just know your ideal outcome and where you might be prepared to settle.

To be a great negotiator, you need to work out what the other party wants, understand their motivation and where they might be able to settle. You need to understand what forms part of their core make-up – that part of the negotiation that they’re never going to move from. Then ask the “what if” questions. Then ask them again. Don’t just think about them from your perspective. Think about them from your counterpart’s perspective.

After you’ve done that, you’ll know what you want, where you can be flexible, and what the other party wants. If you can’t answer all of these questions, then you’ve got more work to do.

To quote Robert Townsend, “The chances are, if you don’t know where you want to be, you won’t end up there.”


  • David Bannister

    David Bannister is director at Scotwork, an independent negotiations consultancy. In his 25-year career, he has helped a broad range of organizations, including banking, finance, agrochemical research, the oil industry and aerospace. He has advised boards and senior management on a wide range of strategic issues, problem resolution and negotiating.

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