How to avoid common missteps and negotiate successfully in any situation Featured

9:01pm EDT March 31, 2011
How to avoid common missteps and negotiate successfully in any situation

When there’s a lot on the line, companies expect executives to be expert negotiators and finesse a delicate compromise with board members or close a vital but tenuous deal with a strategic business partner. But sometimes things go awry even for veteran participants, as evidenced by the infamous botched merger talks between Yahoo! and Microsoft a few years ago, when Microsoft walked away from the deal after the Yahoo! CEO set the price too high.

Negotiators can be afflicted by a winner’s curse, overestimate their abilities, or fall prey to the common misconceptions and mistakes that can derail an entire session. Executives must constantly refresh and refine their negotiation skills to prevail, because when the stakes are this high, the opponents are formidable.

“We live in a society where everything’s negotiable,” says Dr. Asha Rao, professor of management for the College of Business and Economics at California State University, East Bay. “So if you don’t play the game well, you’ll lose.”

Smart Business spoke with Rao about the techniques that lead to successful negotiations and the common misconceptions and mistakes that may derail executives.

What are common misconceptions about the negotiation process?

We believe in fairness. In negotiations, professionals sometimes equate this with equality and assume that a good deal offers similar benefits to the participants, but it’s rare that both parties are equal coming into the session, and insisting on equality can shut down the talks without producing an agreement. One party may get a lot more out of it than another, but as long as each side achieves its primary goal, the gains don’t have to be equal.

Another common misconception centers on the notion that he who speaks first loses. If you’re prepared, why not make the opening offer? Doing so gives you the power to anchor the session and set the direction for the talks. And it provides a strategic advantage because it forces the other party to counter your proposal.

How can negotiators avoid typical mistakes?

These frequent errors will work against you, so avoid them at all costs.

  • Failing to do your homework. You need to take a position that’s supported by facts, and failing to understand the issues before you enter a session can lead to misplaced confidence. Fastidiously research the issues before you begin, because great negotiators never wing it.
  • Failing to identify interests behind positions. It’s easier to reconcile your differences if both parties realize why the other party wants something, and then focus on their common needs and interests. Rallying the participants around a common goal is a great way to break a stalemate and it keeps complex talks on track when the going gets tough. With common interests, negotiations can reopen as in the new successful deal between Yahoo! and Microsoft, where they integrate their businesses and build on common interests to challenge the market leader Google Inc.
  • Succumbing to the winner’s curse. You may get what you ask for! Setting your aspirations too low may get you what you ask for but you end up overpaying or leaving money on the table.

What are the fatal flaws that derail experienced negotiators?

Don’t stand on false principle or let your ego get in the way, because negotiations aren’t about validating your self worth or advocating your beliefs. Your purpose is to get a good deal. Another grave error is adopting a take-it-or-leave-it position. Because it’s not an effective use of power, it sets the stage for confrontation, ends the discussions and forces the other party to walk away.

So what are the best practices and most effective techniques?

First, explain the reasons behind your position. Some experts maintain that this isn’t an appropriate technique, but the other party benefits when they understand your logic, and the information you provide may encourage collaborative problem-solving and fuel a compromise. Second, focus on multiple issues, not just one, because it allows the participants to set aside difficult problems, consummate small wins and build on their success. Third, always contemplate multiple scenarios in advance and prepare a series of fall-back positions. Develop your BATNA — best alternative to a negotiated agreement. A BATNA helps you build power, negotiate with confidence and recognize a good deal when you’re in the midst of an intense session.

Are there special techniques that help executives negotiate with a large group or board?

Identify your allies and the opposition. You definitely want to map the power and interests of each member, develop a strategy for approaching key players and focus your efforts appropriately. Plant your ideas and negotiate with individual members before the agenda is submitted to the forum, otherwise a group session can quickly deteriorate into an auction.

Dr. Asha Rao is a professor of management for the College of Business and Economics at California State University, East Bay. Reach her at (510) 885-4517 or