How to Improve your negotiating skills

Negotiation skills are among the most important for any leader. I called on some prominent senior executives in the region (and my former executive MBA students from the Robert H. Smith School of Business) to get their take on what's needed for successful negotiations. They all agreed a collaborative (win-win) style rather than a hardball (win-lose) style is critical, whether you are negotiating with staff, superiors, customers or other constituents.

Consider everything as a negotiation opportunity.

Herb Cohen's book "You Can Negotiate Anything" gives examples of how almost every part of our day is spent negotiating, from the time we get up and ask a family member to let the dog out to the time we go to bed and ask someone to take the trash out. Most of us in the United States only see the big-ticket items as negotiable (buying a car or house), but our lives are filled with negotiation opportunities: credit card, phone and cable bills and fees; salaries and raises; negotiations with friends, family and colleagues over vacations, work load, time off, etc. You just have to ask. People are often happy to help and really do not like saying no to requests. Most of us limit what we ask of others because we are afraid of rejection. Try it. Start asking people to do things -- you will be amazed at how often people will try to help you. You may not get everything you ask for, but you won't get anything unless you ask.

Preparation is critical.
 When asked what was one of the most important tips to successful negotiations, all of the executives I spoke with mentioned the importance of preparation. "If you do prepare, you're way ahead of the game," said Pete Plotas, vice president of RollStream, a McLean-based company that makes software to help companies collaborate. Plotas created his own preparation sheet to guide his efforts in his international negotiations when building strategic partner networks. You wouldn't walk into a car dealership without reviewing the research on the car and invoice prices; other negotiations also require preparation.

Build trust.
"View every situation as the beginning of a potential relationship. Then you'll go into it looking for areas of mutual interest and opportunities to collaborate," said Frans Meuwissen, international sales manager for Expereo, a telecommunications provider. You also need to be credible to build trust. "For example, if you say you are going to call them back the next day, then you need to follow up," said Donna Blackman, vice president at Marriott International. "f you can't be trusted on these small things, then why would they trust you on the larger things?"

Have a best alternative.
Be willing to walk if your best alternative is more attractive than the deal in front of you. So many people go in to ask for a raise with no alternative in mind. They haven't even looked to see how marketable they are. "Having an attractive [alternative] gives you strength in asking for what you want," said Tom Parsons, senior management adviser for Darcars Automotive Group.

Good communication is critical. But, it's not just about what you say. Using silence strategically is extremely powerful. I tell people to ask a question, then say nothing to allow the other party to respond. Plotas sometimes uses the technique. "Invariably the other party makes another comment that helps me better understand their position or they offer another concession," he said.

Know how to handle difficult negotiations.
Control your emotions, remain calm and listen to the other side of things before you get the other party to think about things from your perspective. "I think it is essential to find common ground that both parties can agree on," said Kim Sullivan, a principal at OPX, a worldwide design consultancy. "This smooths out the process and enables everyone to feel receptive to listening to each other."

Personality factors are key.
Be personable, flexible, and build rapport. "Often people from the [United] States are too impatient to get the deal done and don't allow enough time to build the relationship," Meuwissen said. "This is a deal-breaker in many countries today. You have to be willing to spend the time to get to know the other party."

Practice and get feedback to improve.
There are great books out there, Web sites with tips, and excellent courses. Take advantage of all the resources to practice your skills, get feedback and work on improving. You don't get better at negotiations without practicing and getting feedback.