Before you can get down to the serious issues of a negotiation, you have to have some sort of relationship with the person you’re talking to. Some guys do this with small talk; others will lay out their understanding of the situation, starting with the least controversial matters and then going logically, or as logically as possible, to the more difficult areas.
For me, the best way to start is to ask the other side what’s important to them, and let them drive the discussion agenda, at least at first. In my experience, you’re not really going to be able to negotiate until you have some sort of relationship in place. Asking the other person what’s going on builds the rapport and also tells you what they value. By the time you’re ready to start talking about important points, you already know what they are.
In a sales situation, rapport is sometimes built during the containment stage prior to negotiation. Let’s say you’re a salesman in a stereo store and a customer comes to you with a general interest in buying a stereo. She’s not very specific, and so you don’t really know what you’re going to negotiate on. Rather than charging off to sell her the latest model from XYZ Corporation, you can start to build trust by asking her what her needs are. How often does she listen to music, is she going to watch DVDs in the same place, and on and on. Yes, you’re striving for containment. But by showing an interest in her needs—not yours—you’re setting the stage for negotiations.