Negotiating and the art of building strong relationships

The best negotiators know it. Successful negotiation is not just about agreeing on a good deal, but about managing to build a strong relationship in the process. Take advantage of the following pointers during your next negotiation session.

If you think about it, a contract is just a piece of paper whose terms can be enforced by the courts if it comes down to that. But entering into a relationship means making a connection that has trust and cooperation at its core. This is often more fruitful in the long run. Discover how to build strong relationships during negotiations.

Examine and align all interests

A successful negotiator has the ability to reconcile the interests of all parties to a negotiation. To do that, you have to discern the concerns and priorities of the other side in order to be able to respond to them. It’s all about putting yourself in the shoes of the other parties. About thinking what might be on their minds rather than just focusing on your own interests and saying what it is you want.

A good example

Here’s an example of how discerning the underlying interests of all sides makes a negotiation successful. In 1978 then-US President Jimmy Carter brokered the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. Since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Israel had been occupying the Sinai, and Egypt wanted the peninsula back.

During the negotiations, it emerged that Israel did not necessarily wanted the land, but security. It was primarily concerned about safety, therefore holding on to the Sinai as a buffer zone between Israel and Egypt. Egypt understood this concern, which allowed both parties to agree on a set of security measures that offered Israel enough security to feel able to return the land.

Patience is a virtue

'Time and tide wait for no one' and 'time is money', as the expressions go, but when it comes to important negotiations, 'more haste, less speed' is more fitting. Why? Taking the time in the early stages of a negotiation to address ambiguities can save you time and money by helping maintain a strong relationship. It’s important to be patient so you can get to know your negotiating partner and create a climate that will make it easy to work together over the long haul, even after the contract has been signed.

Preparing for success

If you’re keen for things to fall apart fast, the best thing to do is head into a negotiation thinking: 'Let’s see what they’ve got to say for themselves, and then we will see how we can deal with that on our terms.' The best negotiators never show up unprepared. It’s one of the key reasons why they are the best.

It’s important to study your negotiating partner thoroughly. Step into their shoes as best as you can: What do they need? What do they want? What are they most concerned about, and why? Delve into the backdrop to the negotiations. What kinds of things has your organization done? What about theirs? Were there any glitches along the way? Make sure you don’t get caught off guard by some crucial detail you could have been aware of beforehand. And that you know what laws, regulations and procedures are applicable. Last but not least, think of as many solutions as you can for every conceivable scenario that could crop up during the negotiations.

Preparing is a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it—and being well prepared gives you a stronger position and a greater sense of security during the negotiations. You’ll simply know more and will have thought through a range of alternatives even before sitting down at the table.

Being a good listener

For your negotiations to be successful, you need to watch both what you say and what you do. But you should also take the time to observe your negotiating partner to get a good measure of their disposition. Listen carefully, put yourself in your opposite’s shoes, and use this information to respond in a constructive way to whatever they throw out.

That means listening out for what they are actually saying, rather than getting bogged down in your own thought patterns. And keep in mind: at the negotiating table you have to deal with different points of view. The best approach is to stay calm and focus on the words and conduct of the other party. But also on your own words and behaviors, and the effects they might have on the other side.

The value of mutual respect

It may seem obvious, but it sometimes gets forgotten. It is so important to look your negotiating partner in the eye, so to speak—to actually see what they are about and to respect them. Do not allow any assumption you have that the negotiation is a done deal, to lull you into any kind of complacency. Even if the balance of power is in your favor, it is always a good idea to validate what the other side is saying, so you can work together in your mutual interests after concluding the contract.

Here’s an example that illustrates well the value of this approach: In 1992 and 1993, Northwest Airlines and KLM started talking about the possibility of working together. KLM was a smaller airline. Northwest knew that this was a sensitive issue during the negotiations—and that this sensitivity could carry over into a possible cooperation. So Northwest made sure they treated KLM as an equal partner from start to finish. They took every opportunity, as the negotiations progressed, to acknowledge KLM’s “sovereignty”.

Be principled throughout the negotiations

Keeping these guidelines front and center in your mind the next time you sit down at the negotiating table will help you build strong and fruitful win-win relationships with partners and customers alike.

A way of negotiating that is linked to this approach is the Harvard Method, also known as principled negotiation. This approach aims to build a strong relationship with future partners and, by getting underlying interests out into the open, tries to ensure that everyone gets their piece of the pie.

Exclusive masterclass

One man who knows all about applying this method is Prof. Robert C. Bordone. He is the Thaddeus R. Beal Clinical Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the founder of the Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program. He teaches several courses at Harvard Law School, including its flagship Negotiation Workshop, and in the Harvard Negotiation Institute and the Harvard Program on Negotiation’s Senior Executive Education seminars.

Prof. Bordone also runs an exclusive masterclass at Schouten & Nelissen on how to hone your negotiation skills.

Unique Masterclass Negotiation Skills