Procurement myths: negotiation is all about body language and NLP

Another in our series, designed to provoke and challenge, where we de-bunk great procurement myths

I'm probably going to upset a few people here...so I'll make my excuses first.  I believe behavioural skills are key to effective procurement.  I even believe that neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) has some interesting aspects that can help us deal better with others; whether they are suppliers, colleagues, or friend and family.

But I don't believe that these are the key factors in determining successful negotiators.  For 90% plus of business negotiations, the two key elements are planning and information. NOT your NLP bonding with the supplier or whether you fold your arms or not. And the number of negotiation-focused articles and training events I see with NLP as the centre-piece worries me.

I spoke a while ago to a guy who is doing an academic study in negotiation.  He'd been interviewing a range of senior procurement folk, including me.  I'm really not an expert, I said; I don’t consider myself a master negotiator by any means. Well, he replied, you are about the only one who has mentioned a BATNA, or placed such emphasis on planning. Most of his interviewees focused on behaviour and approach actually in the face to face meeting; 'opening' strategies, body language,  looking for concessions etc.  All fine, but in the vast majority of business situations, not the critical success factor.

It’s a bit like when I started my procurement career, negotiation training went on at great length about having a higher chair than the sales guy, or making him / her stare into the sun.  And ‘opening stances’ was a half day topic. Now, none of this is totally without value, but having a thorough understanding of what you are buying; developing alternatives and options that might help reach a better mutual agreement; analysing product cost structures; benchmarking; preparing your alternative if you can't reach a satisfactory deal (your BATNA); all of these are more often key to a successful outcome.

Your behaviour in the room is significant in relatively few cases, and then only in a minor way. What you do BEFORE you go into the negotiation is the key, and body language won't help you a bit if you are hopelessly under-prepared. One of the best negotiators and category managers I ever worked with had pretty low interpersonal skills. But he more than compensated with thorough planning, and strong analytical skills. He had a tenacious, if not very sophisticated personal approach to the negotiation, and he did extremely well.

There's an old saying that you must never criticise a man (yes, this is a sexist saying) for his driving skills or ...  certain other skills. I think there's a third no-go area.  His negotiation skills.  Pretty much everyone, particularly men I have found, thinks they're a great negotiator.  But if you think that comes from your ability to scratch your ear at the right moment, you're very wrong.

Voices (18)

  1. Rob:

    Interesting that some of the best negotiations were undertaken outside of the ‘negotiation room’. Harvard published a special review on the subject entitled “3D Negotiation”, the most (in)famous one of which related to Dell’s negotiations with Microsoft and Netscape…’the battle of the browsers’

  2. Maureen Sullivan:

    I completely agree with you, Peter. To quote Fisher and Ury ‘most negotiations are won or lost, done well or done poorly, based on the strength of the preparation.’
    Having said that, I do think that approaching negotiations with an attitude of non-judgemental curiosity can be enormously helpful.

  3. VegasChild:

    I’d say that in many ways you are all right. When I first started – at a similar time to Peter it seems, Negotiation training was all about tactics (Russian Front, Churchill close, opening lines etc), then we seemed to go through a phase of it all being preparation/planning (BATNAs and how to improve yours and worsen theirs), now adverts do seem to concentrate more on Negotiation behaviours (e.g NLP, but don’t ignore the great work Rackham did on behaviours of successful negotiatiors – labelling, seeking and giving feelings etc). But surely the answer is all are needed to a degree, depending on the nature of the negotiation (strategic v tactical) the degree changes. Now – who has tips for negotiating with Casinos

  4. Ed Luttrell:

    You make some useful and insightful comments here I think. However, for those of you who have had the misfortune to have been ‘sold’ NLP as a magical solution to all human communication challenges – or as the MOST important aspect of a negotiation – I recognise the (justified) criticism on the topic. For the last two years I have been invited by numerous CIPS groups across the UK to talk about NLP and how it can HELP to give people greater levels of control in negotiation situations. You are quite right to note that preparation before the negotiation is a key plank in mitigating an outcome. NLP suggests that being prepared is just as important as performing. Preparation can come in many forms, however, including being able to enter the negotiation FEELING and THINKING and BEHAVING in a positive and focused way. Surely, all these are attributes that aid effective communication in any situation?

    NLP is and art AND a science. Those who reject it completetly as psuedo or without substance are flying in the face of decades of research and application in the neuro-science, psychiatric & psychological and behavioural sciences fields. The work being carried out in the States at the moment, applying an NLP tool to remove PTS from victims of 9/11 is quite remarkable (and well-referenced).

    And NLP is, as some on this thread have pointed out, a tool; it is not magic nor is it without credibility. Sadly, there are still many in the NLP field who claim it has magical properties and are, in my opinion, not representative of the majority of people (in L&D, Management, Business Leadership, Coaching and even the Military Leadership) who wish to enjoy the very real benefits of adding NLP tools to their portfoliio of skills. And these skills focus on bioth the control of our internal state (mood and emotion management) as well as our ability to communicate to others.

    NLP without integrity, awareness, common sense – AND planning and preparation – is pretty worthless.

  5. Watcher of the Skies:

    Excellent piece and a reminder that the best negotiators ‘win’ before they enter the ‘negotiating room’. I term it ‘event-based-negotiation’; the notion that the real action only begins once you’re across the table from your adversary.

    Want to be great at negotiation? Then consider it a perpetual activity involving detailed and constantly updating preparation, proactive conditioning, and rigorous pursuit of the post-negotiation value both parties agreed to.

    I have no fundamental problem with NLP and the like, but I hate the way it is sometimes presented as a panacea by those who think a winning personality is all you need. These people are often the laziest when it comes to doing the hard hours of detailed preparation.

  6. Craig:

    @bitter and twisted: I didn’t want to bring that up but ynow you have…..yes, NLP is cod science. The efficacy evidence is rather less than scant. At best it is a placebo.

  7. Dom O'Riley:

    I agree with this completely. With al lot of my past being on the other side I would also say the best negotiations and outcome are usually when both supplier and buyer have planned well with good information. If one wins and one loses its very rarely a great outcome for either party. However win/win often leads to good ongoing relations IMHO.

  8. Michael:

    NLP is the study of what works and not neccessarily confined to ‘body language’ and such like. I was a retail buyer for 10 years (who is now an NLP trainer), and when a buyer bought from suppliers who 1) helped me meet and beat my targets and (preferably) 2) I got on with.

    As an NLP trainer I’m as interested in anything that effects the negotiation.

    And I’d also note that the higher up the organisation the more important things like relationship, trust and connection can become.

  9. Andrew Moorhouse:

    There’s a great study on Negotiation in Fortune 500 companies called “Improving Corporate Negotiation Performance” – I can’t remember the precise statistic, but 80% of Fortune 500 companies have no formal negotiation planning process. Google the report – it’s a good one.

  10. bitter and twisted:

    two pence

    NLP = pseudoscience

    No deception is keener than feigning cleverly to fall into the snares laid for us. We are most often deceived when seeking to deceive others.
    (La Rochefoucauld, Maxim 117)

  11. Dan:

    I suppose it depends on what you mean by negotiation. Those guides that emphasise body language and NLP are quite correct, but only if you take the narrow definition – the actual act of negotiating.

  12. Final Furlong:

    Very good Peter.

    I’m not going to focus on ‘planning’ – the point is well made and is applicable to pretty much everything we do. Remember the seven P’s? Perfect Planning Prevents a P*ss Poor Performance in Procurement.

    Information is everything. In my view, negotiation is all about ‘managing the balance of information’.

  13. PlanBee:

    I must truly be a new man, as I would never claim to be a good negotiator!

    I agree with your stance Peter. I believe a negotiation starts (and is won and lost) months before the final face to face meeting. By the time of the final meeting the parameters are final tuned down into narrow bands and the outcome can only be influenced marginally.

    Sure there are exceptions to this, but generally only by some ‘disruptive’ or exceptional behaviour; this can work, but cant be done all the time (otherwise it becomes expected and no longer effective)

    The bigger picture is set well before that by what we used to call supplier conditioning, setting a tone that there is plenty of competition for the ‘widget’ to be bought, including not buying at all, that you as a purchaser have the authority and can manage your stakeholders, that you can implement the deal you are going to do, the you have an alternative option (a Plan B if you like) etc etc etc.

    In terms of making them stare into the sun, if you dont like them then make them do that. If you do like them then I wouldnt bother.

  14. B.P.:

    I think it goes without saying that everyone has to be prepared before going into an negotiation regardless of how much NLP they know. NLP is a tool, not magic.

  15. Sarah:

    Speaking personally, I “enjoy” learning about NLP and the behavioural stuff, but I agree that it’s the planning and the strategy that really makes a successful negotiation.
    NLP and psychologically makes for a more engaging course, sitting in a room learning about planning is boring … but that’s not really the point.

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