No matter where you negotiate, no matter which pair of loafers you’re wearing or what color your blouse is, you have to be in a mental position to negotiate.
Let’s say your roof leaks when it rains. Before you pick up the telephone and call a contractor, you have to know exactly what it is you want. Now, if you know a lot about roofs—or if you see a three-foot-wide hole—that’s pretty obvious. You can draw up a simple plan: Call three companies, get three estimates, choose the best. But if the problem is more complex—you can’t see where the water’s coming from, or you think maybe this might be a time to build the addition as well as fix the roof—you may have to take several preliminary steps before the actual negotiations begin. These are jobs for the other members of the team—the intelligence person, and then the commander. The negotiator doesn’t get involved until they have scoped the situation and a solid goal has been set.
Leaky roofs are easy to deal with, in a way—it’s pretty clear there that you’re not going to start haggling on price before you actually know what’s going on. But let’s go back to my buddy with his complicated property deal. He knew from experience that the overall money paid would be the major focus of negotiations; there’d also be a lot of hassle over exactly when and how it was paid. But he also knew that details in the contract language could be nearly as important, covering the various contingencies and approvals involved in the purchase. One was particularly tricky: Who would pay for the engineering work needed for zoning approval, which the whole deal was contingent on? Most often the buyer does, but in this case my buddy was willing to pick up some but not all of the cost, even if he bought the property.
So he decided to work his negotiations in two stages. Stage one involved the price; that was the main focus of talks, which went off and on for a few weeks. Then, with the parameters of the deal set, the team essentially took a break from negotiations. A proposed contract was drawn by the other side, following the usual procedures. Only when my friend and his lawyer had the contract in hand did they begin the second round of negotiations. They’d used the time off to gather information about the effect the engineering work would have on adjacent parcels the seller owned and how much it would cost to have the work done for just those pieces of property.
The decision to break the negotiations in two wasn’t simply tactical. My friend wanted to be prepared to fine-tune the agreement, but knew that wouldn’t be possible until he had an estimate of how much the other party would benefit. It also helped to have the exact language in front of him. He avoided a lot of wasted energy, and maybe even a potential deal-blowing dispute, by waiting until he was properly positioned to negotiate those points. He was able to focus the second stage of the negotiations and achieve exactly what he wanted without getting sidetracked by other elements of the deal.
Which brings us to the rule of position:
Make sure you’re in position to negotiate before you start negotiating.
This may sound simplistic—man, I hope it sounds simplistic by now—but you can’t start negotiating if you don’t know what you want. If you’re not sure whether you want the ranch house on Cherry Street or the Cape Cod on Meadow Avenue, you’re in no position to start talking. Unfortunately, many of us start negotiating before we really have a goal set out. Is it the Camry or the Accord you’re after? Until you’re sure, you’re in no position to negotiate.
This is especially important when you’re negotiating what might be euphemistically called “domestic situations.” If you’ve ever talked with a teenager about what time they should be home, you know what I mean. The more explicit you are about what you want—home before midnight, no excuses—the better the odds of getting what you want.
Though we are talking teenagers here.