Insight from Sue Williams, Hostage Negotiator (Part 2) – Tips for Procurement


Yesterday we started telling you about the keynote from Sue Williams at ProcureCon Indirect last week.

Williams is an experienced hostage negotiator, but gave us plenty to think about in terms of business and procurement negotiation strategies (see picture of enthralled audience!)

We mentioned the focus on listening and getting beneath the issues. The day after I returned from the event, I was in a meeting (not apparently a “negotiation”, but really it was) where an important stakeholder was expressing some objections to a proposed course of action.

The other party interrupted and said “yes but …” and explained why the first person’s objection wasn’t really valid. Actually, it probably was valid, but that wasn't the point. The important factor was that the second person needed to listen, explore and understand the first person, rather than jumping in with a solution, or, even worse, a flat contradiction.

Back to Williams – negotiation is “no place for egos”. And there should be huge preparation before any communication, which (if successful) then leads to negotiation. You must understand why people are doing what they are doing - see the situation as the other person sees it, look at it from their perspective. So get beneath the issue, peel back the layers, get to the root of issues, and don’t accept popular or easy assumptions. And never believe you are too clever to ask questions.

Demonstrating empathy is the first step to behavioural change, it shows people you understand what they’re going through. And it can be two-way; you can create empathy so the other party can understand your challenges too.

That rapport (defend as a "relationship with mutual trust") can be damaged easily. Be careful with words, such as saying “I understand” (you probably don’t).  And “OK” indicates agreement, so use it with caution.  Phrases such as  “that must be frustrating for you, tell me more” are good. Rapport can also be built through a common interest – Williams has found a tendency for kidnappers around the world to be interested in British football, particularly Manchester United!

So build rapport, then influence, then look for behavioural change. But you need to be sincere, think about the way you speak, your body language, it is all important. Be in the right mindset for the negotiation, and “it helps if people like you” (how many procurement people aim to be liked by their suppliers’ negotiators? Not many, we suspect).

Williams then suggested some commonalities between her world and the procurement world. In both cases, we:

  • Must work within the law
  • Have to work within deadlines
  • Can make it worse by what we say
  • Have to earn the right to communicate
  • Need to negotiate to “yes” then get to “how”
  • Must identify and manage the stakeholders

But in procurement, we can walk away from the table – she can’t. On the other hand, we often have to negotiate in the context of an enduring relationship, which brings some different challenges.

So on to her final thoughts - planning and preparation are key. Create options, limit the emotion, know what is negotiable, and who is the decision maker. And we loved her final one-liner:

“Negotiation is about getting onto someone’s head without leaving an entry wound!”

We’ve heard a lot of non-procurement keynote speakers over the years who were interesting on their topic, without perhaps reading across too successfully to our procurement context. This was an excellent session, because it did just that. Williams was fascinating when talking about her world, but also gave us a lot to think about in terms of any negotiation; commercial, personal or even kidnap-related!


Share on Procurious

First Voice

  1. Dan:

    I suspect that procurement would be a lot easier if our BATNA also involved heavily tooled-up colleagues kicking the door in.

Discuss this:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.