Listening – The Under-Rated Negotiation Skill

We mentioned on Friday our lunch with Alan Thomson, an old friend and an experienced sales director, who has just left negotiation training firm, the Gap Partnership. Over our lunch, we asked him to give one piece of negotiation advice for procurement people – and it was simple but powerful.

“Listen” he said.

When we got talking further about that comment, we agreed that procurement people are often in a powerful position in a negotiation situation – or they think they are. Perhaps, dare I say it, a touch of arrogance can creep in with buyers from the biggest firms or those in the most powerful market positions.

So the temptation for procurement is to take the lead, to talk, to make demands. To think that what is important is what we say. Perhaps the very nature of the procurement role – where we are used to people listening to us with great apparent interest  - plays into this. But, as Alan says, it is only by listening that you establish what the other party wants from the negotiation, and what they might give you in return. Finding that common ground is the core of negotiation and it can only happen optimally if both parties listen to each other.

I suspect that not many of us are great “natural” listeners – as kids, most of us want to talk, we want people to listen to us. So although it seems a simple skill, it requires some work to get into the habit of really listening.

I confess that I have had problems in this area. It was never arrogance in my case, I hope, or the feeling that I want to talk and dominate. But my tendency is to start thinking ahead, so I might listen to the first thing the supplier says but then my brain is racing ahead to what that means, and how I should respond. (I’ve also got a short attention span and get bored easily which doesn’t help). So I’ve had to learn to keep focused, concentrate, listen, and postpone my own thinking till the other party has finished talking! Remember, there is nothing wrong with some silence in negotiations while you consider what you’ve just heard. Indeed, it can be powerful technique for getting more concessions in some circumstances.

But it is not enough to just listen. That is only in reality a means to an end of course. It is how you use that skill, how you use what you have heard positively that is really key. So tomorrow we’ll look at that aspect of negotiation – and identify a problem that often occurs in interviews as well as traditional procurement negotiations.

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