Successful negotiating requires perspective and flexible thinking

When you run into opposition that threatens to derail a task or project, how do you work through it? Calvin Sun suggests that you can negotiate your way around obstacles and conflicting objectives by understanding who you're dealing with, looking clearly at what you need to achieve, and exploring creative options that enable you to resolve the situation.

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"We need this done right now"... "Can you deliver this afternoon?"... "I need you to work this Saturday!"


We all want something from someone else. At the same time, other people, usually customers or bosses, want things from us. The better we are at negotiating, the more successful we're likely to be — and the more likely it is that we'll keep our sanity. Here are some tips to get you there.

#1: Know as much as you can about the other person

In his classic work The Art of War, the ancient author and strategist Sun Tzu discussed the importance of knowing the enemy as well as ourselves. He said:

  • If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.
  • If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you suffer defeat.
  • If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

When I conduct training for IT professionals in customer service, I often have attendees do an exercise in persuasion. I ask them first to think of a policy they think customers will resist (for example, asking that customers call a central help desk, rather than call individual IT staff people). Next, I ask them to think like the customer and list as many reasons as they can why following the policy would benefit them, the customer (as opposed to benefiting the IT person or department, although some reasons would involve benefits to both). Finally, I ask them to think of objections the customer might raise and how the IT person would address that objection. At the same time, I caution them that if they are unable to come with good responses to objections, they might need to reconsider the policy.

#2: Distinguish between objectives and methods

Don't confuse objectives with methods of achieving those objectives or you'll restrict your thinking. The following story, from the book of Daniel, illustrates this point:

A young man long ago was being groomed, along with others, to take up official positions to serve a king. In doing so, these young men had to follow a royal diet. However, the young man's religious beliefs prohibited him from doing so. This refusal upset a supervising official, believing the resulting worse appearance of the young man would cost the official his life.

The young man made a deal with the official. He asked the official for a ten day test, during which he would eat only vegetables and drink only water. At the end of that time, the official saw how much better than the others the young man looked, and let him keep that diet.

The apparent objectives of the official (young man eats the royal food) and the young man (don't eat the royal food) conflict and are mutually exclusive. However, this view about objectives is wrong. The official's objective was not that the young man eat the royal food. His objective really was that the young man have a good appearance. Because that objective doesn't conflict with the young man's objective, it was possible to achieve both of them.

Let's say an executive needs a document right now, but he's having trouble with remote printing. Rather than spend large amounts of time trying to resolve the printing technology, what if you simply faxed a copy of the document?

#3: Understand various options for resolving the situation

Once we understand objectives, we need to break down the situation to discover underlying issues. Then, we can look at various options, which include:

  • Varying time and sequence. If you're asking someone to do a series of actions, do they all have to happen right now? What if some of them happened later? Do you care if they change the sequence of what they do, as long as you still get what you want?
  • Varying place. Do you care where a particular action occurs or where a delivery is made? Can that action or delivery occur somewhere else?
  • Varying the person. Do you really care who performs a requested task, as long as it happens?
  • Chunking. Instead of dealing with a large issue, can it be worked on as smaller pieces? For example, the young man limited the dietary test to 10 days, rather than running it continuously until the time came to see the king. By setting a limit, both sides had time to take corrective action.

Here are some examples that illustrate how varying these options can help both parties reach an agreeable solution.

Example 1: You want a supplier to deliver 100 cartons of toner to one of your locations by next Friday. The supplier says it's a problem. Here are some questions to consider:

  • How critical REALLY is the Friday date? What can the supplier deliver by that time — and is that amount something you can live with for the short term? Alternatively, when can the supplier deliver the full 100 cartons?
  • What flexibility do you have with your office needs? Can you do other things in the meantime that don't involve this toner?
  • Do you really need all the toner at that particular location? Are there alternate locations within your company where the supplier could deliver?
  • Do you have to use this supplier? Can you ask another supplier or ask this one to subcontract to someone else?
  • Do you have other obligations the supplier is fulfilling for you and are these other obligations hindering the Friday date? If so, how willing are you to let the Friday shipment take priority?

Example 2: I was once part of an application development team, and our project was the development of a new interactive voice response system involved with employee retirement plan information and transactions. In all, we had 10 programs to develop. Half of the programs allowed a caller to update and change information and perform transactions, and the other half were simply inquire-only programs (for example, one program provided account balance information).

When it became clear that we would miss the delivery date, our project manager worked out an alternate arrangement with the project users. We would focus on finishing the inquiry-only programs by the original delivery date, then complete the other programs by a later date. The alternate plan worked, and the sponsor and users were happy with the system.


Calvin Sun works with organizations in the areas of customer service, communications, and leadership. In addition to writing this column, he contributes to TechRepublic's Help Desk Blog.

About Calvin Sun

Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

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