Negotiation crucial to executive success

Compromising techniques can be used in many situations

The word negotiation often brings to mind a formal setting with two sides facing off across a table to settle an issue, whether in business, collective bargaining or international diplomacy. For some HR professionals, especially in a unionized setting, the word can be fraught with trepidation and potential turmoil.

Jim Murray, the author of three best-selling books on negotiating, believes the same negotiating principles can be successfully used in situations as different as parent-child discussions, business meetings and explosive encounters in a war zone.

In 2001, Canada’s military asked Murray to design a training program to equip officers with the necessary skills to enable success in a variety of civil-military reconstruction efforts. The focus is now on negotiating challenges in places like Afghanistan and the Sudan. Although he had been offering his negotiating program since the early 1970s in a two-day format, the life-threatening consequences of this particular training necessitates five days of intensive residential study.

Negotiations in international hot zones are not that much different from everyday business transactions or even interpersonal encounters. An understanding of cross-cultural differences, bargaining dynamics and process nuances, and the ability to distinguish essentials from expendables, is critical to success. It matters little if the negotiator is dealing with a warlord, an unco-operative colleague, a boss or a recalcitrant teenager.

“Negotiating is a delicate mix of art and science, of style and substance. It prizes intuition as highly as intellect, common sense as much as the hard numbers,” says Murray. “It requires emotional detachment, an understanding of the critical importance of process and a high aspiration level. It is a game of power, real as well as imagined. While some people play the game masterfully, others only dimly understand it.”

Some people are better negotiators than others. And some cultures produce better bargainers, largely because it’s a way of life and survival may depend upon it. Following years of study, Murray is convinced North Americans may be the worst negotiators on the planet, because they limit their negotiating to specific arenas and fail to see its application to virtually everything people do, from parenting to marriage to managing expectations in the workplace.

How does one train people to negotiate if, as Murray suggests, it’s a generic life skill? With more than 37 years of teaching experience, Murray believes negotiating is a skill that can be developed and, eventually, mastered.

Most executives misjudge the time and scope parameters and applications of this everyday competency. Murray is often asked to provide his training program in a day or less and he respectfully declines.

He might discuss the attributes of winning negotiators, or what makes them consistently successful in any bargaining arena. But he says he will not “take a Band-Aid approach to the one skill that can immeasurably enhance the quality and meaning of your life as well as the lives of those people on whom you depend for your happiness.”

Learning how to negotiate is as much about attitude adjustment as behaviour modification. Since philosophy dictates actions, knowing how to optimize a deal versus minimizing one’s losses is essential to success. Most people react negatively to reservations and objections. Murray sees them as an expression of interest and an opportunity to discover important information.

Murray acknowledges there are skills he cannot teach, although he can show people how to develop them through practice and conscientious evaluation. These necessary attributes of optimal negotiators are objectivity and the power of positive thinking. Using practical, real-life simulated negotiating scenarios, learners can be shown the way to become more dispassionate and more confident in the outcomes.

Robert Gagnon is the associate director of professional development for the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario. He can be reached at (800) 387-0735 ext. 326 or [email protected].

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