Negotiation Advice – REALLY Listen, Think, Respond

Yesterday we talked about the importance of listening in the context of negotiation.

That was the number one piece of advice from my friend Alan Thomson, who has spent years leading negotiations (from a sales side) then training and advising top companies and people from both sales and procurement sides of the table.

I’d add one point to that fundamental truth. It is not only about really listening carefully, it is also essential to translate that into acting on what you hear. That sounds obvious, but I’ve often been in meetings (not always obvious negotiations, but where the discussion might inform a negotiation), and the other party says something interesting. But that is not picked up on as it should be, and the conversation rapidly moves on.

The good listener understands that something has been said that can lead on to another useful question, and directs the conversation down that new track to gain useful information. It’s very similar to how effective interviewers work, an activity where I’ve seen this sort of situation many times.

Interviewer 1; So tell us about your experience of developing category management strategies?

Candidate; Well, I was part of the team that developed the NatWest IT software strategy in 2013  - that proved very successful and delivered millions in savings.

Interviewer 1; Great, that’s good. So let’s move on to your experience in contract management …

Interviewer 2; Hang on a minute, sorry to interrupt, but you say you were part of the team … what exactly was your role in that team?

Candidate; Well, I was working in IT at the time, in project management, so I was one of the designated users providing input into the category strategy.

Interviewer 2; So you weren’t actually doing the strategic thinking about the strategy, you weren’t the owner of it, or running sourcing processes?

Candidate: No, that was mainly the Category Manager in procurement who did that …

Interviewer 1 may have thought (s)he was listening, and had obtained the "answer" to the question, but (s)he wasn’t really, while Interviewer 2 picked up on those key words “part of the team” and wanted to explore that further.

We can think of similar examples in negotiations. For example, when you have asked for something from the supplier, maybe a price reduction, or additional service or features, and the supplier says “well, we couldn’t possible give you that unless you can make some very big changes in your approach to the contract”.

Don’t just move onto the next point – pick up on that and ask, “what changes? I think you’ve just agreed that you would be prepared to make that concession under certain circumstances – what would those be”?

That is real listening. In some ways I find it is like being a detective, and interrogating a suspect. We’re trying to get to the truth – not whether the sales director committed murder maybe, but the truth of what the other party wants in the negotiation, and what they can and will offer to us. Listening, yes, it’s critical. But understanding how to respond to what you hear is just as important.

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