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The Top Five Things to Know About Successful Negotiation

Published in LEADDOC, American College of Physician Executives
May 2013

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As a young physician, establishing yourself in the medical community requires effective negotiation skills. When a job offer is on the table and you want something other than what is proposed, when a patient demands a specific treatment approach but you believe something different is warranted or when a colleague resists your proposed completion date for an article you are jointly writing, negotiation skills will help you create an optimal outcome.

Negotiation comes in many varieties. A competitive approach is aimed at you getting more than the other side gets – a win-lose outcome. A compromise means lose-lose, with both sides giving up something to get an acceptable solution. An integrative process creates a win-win, whereby both parties get the majority of what they want. Successful negotiators, as a backdrop to each situation they enter, focus on the integrative approach because their experience tells them it leads to better outcomes, more productive relationships and on-going trust. To that end, here are the top five things they do:

Successful negotiators ask for what they want.

They strongly believe that everything is negotiable and are not hesitant to be clear about what results they expect. By doing their homework, they have a good idea of what is fair, so their requests have a higher probability of acceptance. They support their ideas with evidence, strengthening their ability to influence and making it tough for others to turn them down. They have mastered the art of assertive language, avoiding tentative language that makes it easy for the other party to gain the upper hand, i.e. I was hoping that maybe we could possibly... vs. I need a space that can accommodate the key pieces of equipment I need to provide XYZ treatment. On the other hand, they know that aggressive statements of their “demands” only set a negative tone and create defensiveness in the other party.

Successful negotiators forecast what the other party will say.

They work hard to understand the other side’s needs, not only their own. They find out what pressures the other party is facing by doing some reconnaissance. For example, when preparing to negotiate salary for a new job, effective negotiators use their professional network as well as research tools to determine what kinds of financial pressure the organization making the offer may have, what recent salary offers have looked like and what other benefits are available to package into a deal. Or, when preparing to negotiate for resources with another department within their organization, good negotiators identify the critical issues in that work area, as well as personality traits of key players who will participate in the dialogue. When face-to-face in the early stages of a lengthy negotiation, they listen more than they talk, gathering valuable information about the other party.

They ask open-ended questions, rather than those that can be answered by “yes” or “no,” i.e. Can you give me an example of that? Say more about that issue... What’s most important to you? Preparation allows successful negotiators to be equipped to address what the other side may bring to the table.

Successful negotiators avoid and unlock rigid positions.

Locking into a must-have solution creates stifling limits. Good negotiators enter the situation with an understanding of their own interests, not pre-determined positions. For example, deciding you need a 10 percent increase in your budget is a position. Identifying what you really need, i.e. more staff hours or better equipment, can lead to exploring more options. What if staff hours were available from someone in another area who is underutilized? What if equipment could be leased rather than purchased? Conversely, when the other party takes a rigid stance, a good negotiator works at opening up options by asking questions such as, Is that date/price/figure firm? Do you have any flexibility with that? Are you open to another option? Under what circumstances would you...? They know that locking into a position reduces options and often results in getting far less than they might have if they searched for more alternatives with an open mind.

Successful negotiators create gains for both sides.

If they get something, they make sure they give something of equivalent value. They look for an outcome that satisfies the needs of both sides. Imagine negotiating with a leader who insists that you draft a document by a date you think is unreasonable. Propose some options that create gains for both sides: What if I work with someone else who can share the work? What if I can get part of the document to you by that date and the rest on a later date (assuming you discover the leader doesn’t really need the whole draft at once)? Could we temporarily take something off my plate to allow time to do this? Being respectful of the needs of the other side is what makes successful negotiators not only effective but also likeable.

Successful negotiators are willing to walk away.

If the other party is not playing fair or offering a reasonable deal, good negotiators know that putting a halt to the negotiation may be the best option. They always have a “Plan B” in mind that allows them to more comfortably walk way. Entering a salary negotiation with a back-up job offer, for example, makes it easier to say “no” if you really can’t get even close to what you want. Or, you may decide you are ready to lose a patient who is unwilling, after several conversations, to behave respectfully toward the staff on your clinical team. If the other side crosses the line from assertive to aggressive, using demeaning language, you might agree to proceed only when some ground rules for interaction can be implemented. While hoping the other side will reengage and open up to more acceptable alternatives, good negotiators know that there is always the inherent risk that walking away will end the communication. In important situations where options are available, it’s a risk they are willing to take.

Successful negotiation, in the end, should result in positive relationships. Both parties should feel they are willing to come back together again to begin the process of give and take when differences arise. By honing your negotiation skills, you can emulate the behaviors of successful negotiators and build your base of organization and professional influence.


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