Chris Atkins from The Gap Partnership explains the role that they play, and how to defend yourself against the most commonly used.
Around 2,500 years ago, Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War. In it, he famously said, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”
Perhaps this is why tactics, particularly in negotiation, are so often viewed as the poor relation to strategy. Strategy is seen as the realm of the intellectual, the cerebral, the forward thinker. It represents your long term vision and your route to achieving it. Without strategy, you are certain to lose. No skilled negotiator would take a seat at the negotiation table without a clear, well-thought-out strategy in place.
But here’s the thing. Once at the table, as the general’s words suggest, the smartest and most beautifully planned strategy will be hampered if not accompanied by carefully selected and well executed tactics. And it’s precisely because tactics oil the wheels of strategy and facilitate its success, that understanding them – what they are, when they are used on you, when you may consider using them yourself – is a vital component in successful negotiation.
So how to differentiate negotiation tactics from negotiation strategy? Tactics are concrete, short term, behavioral, and personal. They are used to unsettle, create an emotional state and encourage irrational decision making. As such, the primary defense to all tactics is to recognize that they are merely examples of your counterparty doing their job. They may sometimes be clumsy, but they are not in fact personal, unless you make them so by reacting. Experienced negotiators learn to sit back, say to themselves (or perhaps their counterparty) “I can see what you did there”, and construct their response in an unemotional way.
The decision as to which tactics are deployed is of course down to the individual negotiator. Their choice will be influenced by their own personal set of ethics and values, together with those of their organization. It may also depend on the negotiation circumstances and the trust between the two parties – indeed it can take years to build trust levels between two companies, but mere seconds to destroy that trust through the inappropriate use of a negotiating tactic.
“The smartest and most beautifully planned strategy will be hampered if not accompanied by carefully selected and well executed tactics.”
Given this, it is prudent to bear in mind two principles when weighing up if, how and when to use tactics in a negotiation. Firstly, no combination of tactics will be effective in the absence of structured planning and controlled execution. Secondly, the more any tactic is employed, the less effective it becomes. If your counterparty continually uses recognizable tactics you will become more adept at counteracting them, and you should take confidence from the fact that you are better planned and structured than they are.
In Steve Gates’ The Negotiation Book, over forty negotiation tactics are listed, and undoubtedly there are more. Let’s take a look at a selection of the most commonly used, along with ways in which each can be counteracted.
THE BROKEN RECORD
Negotiators will often repeat the same demand again and again in an attempt to wear you down – those with young children will recognize this tactic!
Either state clearly, and repeatedly, that the demand cannot be accepted at all, or outline the conditions under which you could agree to all, or part of, the demand.
THE PROFESSIONAL FLINCH
Many people are startled into making concessions by the extreme nature of an individual’s rejection of their proposal.
This kind of rejection is often planned and rehearsed. Tell yourself in advance to expect it. If you are ready for it, you will be less unsettled. Remind yourself that rejection is part of negotiation.
The imposition of a time constraint, whether real or invented, is frequently designed to pressurize you into an agreement.
Suggest that you will need more time to work out a favorable deal – that often uncovers whether the time constraint is real or not. Ask why the time constraint exists and what the consequences would be of exceeding it. If the time constraint is real, you will often find that it is your counterparty who is under pressure and not you.
Experienced negotiators generally know what their counterparty wants. Increased volume, longer contracts, enhanced credit terms or improved guarantees are just some examples. They will often start with a lower volume or a minimal credit period and negotiate hard for the best terms. Once those have been achieved, they will then start to add in different building blocks – e.g. higher volume, better credit terms – in order to improve the deal.
Outline your requirements first before your counterparty mentions them and state the terms you would offer if these conditions are met. Make a clear plan in advance of the terms you would offer for differing volumes or contract lengths and do not deviate from this.
GOOD GUY, BAD GUY
This tactic has been brought into public consciousness through many a TV police drama where it is used as a technique to interrogate suspects. Essentially, you are confronted with two negotiators, one of whom makes unreasonable demands, only to give way to their colleague who makes less unreasonable demands in the hope that, by comparison, you will find them more acceptable and agree.
The key thing to remember is that the “good guy” wants exactly the same things as the “bad guy”, they are just going about it differently. Examine each proposal or demand in isolation, don’t fall into the trap of comparing the two and evaluating one proposal in relation to another. To defuse the “bad guy”, you could agree to their demands, on the condition that they accept an equally unreasonable demand of yours.
THE SOCIAL SMELL
The inference that you are somehow not conforming to an accepted code of practice within your industry or that you are acting in a way that sets you apart from your competitors can be a powerful argument.
Others in your company may well have worked for competitors in the past and may be able to confirm or refute what is standard industry practice. Seek out others’ advice on what constitutes accepted practice. There may be an opportunity to challenge your counterparty on another issue where they have refused to accept one of your conditions on the grounds that it, too, is customary within your industry.
THE MOCK SHOCK
Sometimes individuals will threaten disproportionately serious consequences – such as significant loss of business or a refusal to supply – if demands are not met.
Often the person making the threat is not empowered – or even willing – to implement the threat, but you cannot
afford to back them into a corner and call their bluff. Neither should you continue to discuss only the subject of the individual’s demand. Instead, stay calm and make a proposal which includes issues other than just what your
counterparty is demanding and/or conditions under which you could accept some or all of the demand.
THE PERSONAL FAVOR
People negotiate with people and they build relationships with each other. This is normal and often enhances the business relationship. Sometimes negotiators try to exploit this by phrasing some demands as personal favors. Many individuals (especially salespeople) find this hard to resist for fear of damaging their relationship.
The reality is that this is not a personal favor, it is a business favor. You have every right to refuse it, as your first loyalty is to your employer. By asking for a personal favor in return you can test the strength of the relationship.
DEFENSE IN DEPTH
You think you have an agreement until your counterparty calls you and tells you that their boss cannot agree unless you make a further concession. To get the deal done, you agree, only for them to call back two days later to tell you that now the boss is insisting that you make more concessions. And so on…
Always clarify in advance whether your counterparty will have to refer the deal elsewhere before it can be agreed. Know who the ultimate decision-maker is. Suggest that your counterparty invite the higher authority to subsequent meetings.
ONE MORE THING
Towards the end of a negotiation, when you know that a deal is within touching distance, you can be vulnerable to this tactic. Armed with this knowledge, individuals often deliberately try to obtain a final concession in the closing stages of negotiation.
Agree an agenda at the start of negotiations. This should define all of the issues you need to agree and will prevent any non-agenda items being introduced at a late stage. Rather than simply conceding, try to secure a reciprocal concession of your own.