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Becoming a more successful negotiator means seeing opportunities all around you, says UNSW Business School Professor, Peter Sheldon.

“We negotiate all the time but usually we don't even know we're negotiating,” he explains.

“A lot of scenarios that we find ourselves in are open to negotiation, but we don't see those opportunities.”

The Professor of Management believes securing a better deal comes down to planning and building rapport.

Plan your negotiation

“Self-awareness needs to be at the heart of how you conceive, plan and carry out the negotiation,” Prof Sheldon says.

“It’s about knowing yourself and knowing why you’re at this negotiation, including the interests or needs that bring you here.”

Starting with a focus on your interests, think of all the issues that will help you meet them.

“Visualise what a win would look like in terms of setting goals, and more precisely, determine the targets you are aiming for,” Prof Sheldon advises.

“By planning all this, you have greater clarity on what your opening offer should be, and what should be the last offer you would accept before leaving this negotiation.”

Understanding how you’re perceived by the other person is central to persuasion and crafting a communication plan will help you work through avoidable misunderstandings and unhelpful negotiation side tracks.

“Consider everything from your non-verbal communication, to the type of questions you ask, how you use silence, whether you share information, whether they see you as a threat or opportunity,” Prof Sheldon explains.

Building rapport is crucial

‘Idle chit-chat’ is an excellent way to build rapport in a negotiation, according to Prof Sheldon.

Although this small talk should be anything but idle or spontaneous.

Prof Sheldon suggests writing five well thought-out ‘chit-chat’ questions before going in to the negotiation – even if you already know the person.

“You can learn potentially relevant and important information about the other side which you can use in different ways - the whole point is to build rapport with someone you've never met before and build a bridge of understanding and trust,” he says.

“But the questions should be non-invasive and non-threatening, and not appear in any way to touch on what might be the sensitive issues of the negotiation.”

The UNSW professor suggests making the effort to draft answers for five difficult questions that you don’t want to be asked. 

“Chances are you will be asked one or two of those terrible questions that you’re otherwise not ready for,” he says.

“If you’re going for a job, look at your CV and put yourself in the other person’s shoes - what would you see as the weaknesses in your own documentation or experience? Then plan some answers in case they do ask.”

If it starts to go pear-shaped

Designing a communication strategy means preparing for the worst as well as the best.

Crucial to both is gaining more leverage, notably through strengthening your BATNA and your use of ‘framing’.

In negotiation-speak, a BATNA is a best alternative to a negotiated agreement (or disagreement).

Prof Sheldon describes a scenario where you are offered two jobs in two different places.

“Once you’ve reflected on your interests, you would decide to go for the more favourable job first,” he explains.

“But the second one gives you an alternative, and the better that option is, the more bargaining power and capacity to negotiate a better outcome you have.”

Painting a persuasive picture

Framing can be used to encourage the other side to see things from your perspective and convince them that your offer has more value to them than they initially thought.

“In a job interview, maybe they've thought of you in one particular way and you'd like to expand their thinking by suggesting other things that you offer, especially if you have objective external evidence,” Prof Sheldon says.

But after all these efforts, you might encounter hostility in your negotiation that puts the breaks on creativity and problem solving.

The UNSW professor suggests separating the people from the problem - referencing the well-known Harvard Approach to Principled Negotiation.

“It’s not the problem that’s hostile, it’s the people that get hostile around the problem, so separate the problem from the people,” he advises.

“Using your ‘chit-chat’ questions to break down barriers and walls of mistrust can be the beginning of a high trust collaboration.”