A pervasive belief about negotiation is that you can’t plan for it and can’t control it because nothing is predictable; negotiation is all reaction and no amount of proactive preparation will matter. The essence of this problem was poignantly captured in an offhand comment made by the editor of Selling Power magazine, a magazine we love and with which we have a good working relationship. On this day we were talking with one of the editors about having a more consistent and rational approach to negotiation – a strategy versus a moving target. The editor stopped us and said, “How can you do that? I mean, aren’t all negotiators like drunks?”
I asked her what she meant and she explained, “You know, you never know what they’re gonna do.” This comment does a good job of summarizing how a lot of us confront negotiation. We assume there’s no way to know what the other side is going to do, which colors the way we try to deal with them. We treat negotiation like a moving target (like our editor’s unpredictable drunk), so why even bother. We stop trying to predict the unpredictable and avoid the unavoidable.
Another case in point: I was speaking at a conference for the International Association of Contract and Commercial Managers (IACCM) recently, and the event was really illuminating. This was a room filled with truly world-class negotiators, so my team and I asked them the burning question that has preoccupied our office: “What is your biggest frustration about negotiation?” The consensus was thus: “You can’t really get your arms around negotiation; you never know what’s going to happen from one minute to the next.” In other words: negotiation is uncontrollable, so why are we talking about controlling it?
Indeed, feedback from this and other IACCM conferences is a variation on this same theme:
1. I’m in firefighting mode from the minute I sit down at the bargaining table. I’m getting slammed. I’m moving so fast I can’t control it.
2. It doesn’t matter what I do anyway because all these deals are “moving targets,” so the best I can do is just try to keep up and do damage control.
Does one – or both – of these scenarios sound eerily familiar to you? I know they must, because these sentiments are echoed by the majority of our clients who come to us seeking relief – that is, quick answers for complex problems.
Only a few companies have a firm plan in place for negotiation. In fact, the “planning is futile” mindset is so pervasive that you are probably skeptical right now. You probably think there is no way you could you ever walk up to the bargaining table without your treasured lists and tips, your scripts and personality analyses. But you can. And you probably don’t believe that I’ve used three research-based counterpunches (presented in the B2B Street Fighting book) to help hundreds of clients in Fortune 500 companies all over the globe close more than 20,000 deals. But I have.