Essential Soft Skills for the Workplace - Negotiation |

Essential Soft Skills for the Workplace - Negotiation

By Amelia Hopkins

Updated Updated

Negotiation is one of the most important skills you’ll develop as a businessperson. In the latest iteration of our Jobs and Salary Trends Report, employers establish that soft skills – particularly interpersonal skills, such as negotiation – are sorely lacking in many new hires. Successful negotiators rely on knowledge, intelligence, nerve and a host of other communication and interpersonal skills. While this might seem difficult to learn, the truth is that most people already have some semblance of these abilities. Honing and maximizing their potential is what you need to do to succeed. 

Colin McRoberts is an expert negotiator and consultant, who provides training through his co-owned company Vasher McRoberts LLC, as well as lecturing at the University of Kansas School of Law. We asked him about the importance of negotiation skills and how to improve your own: 

“There may not be any skillset more important in business than negotiation. Any particular job or task may depend on other skills, but in general, nothing is more consistently critical than the interpersonal and strategic skills that contribute to effective negotiation. 

“For example, a treasury officer will obviously rely on skills from risk management to Excel. But every single day of her career she will be interacting with other people: she’ll be working with colleagues, managers, direct reports, vendors, and others to achieve her day-to-day and long-term goals. 

“There are essentially no tasks a businessperson could perform that don’t require good negotiation skills: understanding another person’s interests, marshalling resources to create mutually beneficial solutions, and persuading others to contribute to and accept those solutions.” 

It’s clear then just how vital it is to be a good negotiator, but how can you learn to become a master at the art? The key is developing the skills already there. 

Specific skills for specific roles

While the basis for good negotiation skills - effective communication, confidence, ability to read others - might be the same for all roles, for specific positions a narrower field of expertise is often required. This means paying attention to others in similar sectors and understanding how they do things. 

“Every negotiator has a different set of strengths and weaknesses and needs to develop the skills to complement their own circumstances. For commodity buyers, for example, the most important skill may be knowing when to walk away from a negotiation; an HR manager, on the other hand, will rely much more heavily on communication and people skills,” says McRoberts.

Understanding the other party

To negotiate successfully, you need to understand not only the problem itself but how the other negotiating party sees the problem. You need to look at what their motivation is and what the ‘best case scenario’ for them would be. By doing so, you’ll establish where the middle ground is and how you can successfully reach a deal. To do this, ask open-ended questions and consider their responses carefully. Clarify any queries you have and make sure you’ve done your research.

”One of the most important and underutilized skills, though, is the ability to see the negotiation from the counterpart’s perspective. This sounds easier than it actually is; most negotiators never really try to see the conversation from the perspective of the other side of the table. In fact, we’ve found that some negotiators become very uncomfortable even trying to do this,” says McRoberts.

“It’s important to remember that in any complex negotiation, it’s not possible to see the other side’s perspective completely accurately—there are too many variables, including the unpredictable human element. The skill is not to perfectly predict the other side’s beliefs or behavior, but to get a deeper insight into their perspective. Done well, the result is faster, more confident, and more effective negotiations.”

Don’t fixate on numbers

It’s easy to see numbers as the beginning and end of a negotiation, but on many occasions, the periphery offers can be just as significant. Price might be the most important thing about the sale of a house, for example, but that doesn’t mean that the state of the house, the inclusion of furniture, the land it’s situated on and the location aren’t all important factors.

Always be prepared

As with everything in life, preparation is the key to success. Make sure you’ve done your research and crafted a plan of action. McRoberts suggests:

“Create a strategy. Write it down if at all possible. Consider both sides’ interests, options to satisfy those interests, the parties’ alternatives, and other critical elements.

“The best preparation is going beyond your assumptions. For example, we’ll have our consulting clients give us a list of possible options for their upcoming negotiation – price points, contract amendments, whatever the parties can respectively agree to. And then we’ll have them expand that list by coming up with new options that they haven’t yet considered. And then we’ll have them expand the list again with more options. And then we’ll have them expand that list yet again. The idea is to push negotiators to increase their insight into the negotiation, rather than simply relying on assumptions or their memories of prior, similar negotiations.

“In other words, if you haven’t had some new insight into this negotiation—seen a way that it’s different from your other negotiations, or identified a creative option you haven’t tried before—then you aren’t yet prepared to negotiate.”

Feeling awkward

For those new to negotiating, awkwardness can be a particular issue. To beat it, all you need is practice:

“Negotiate. Go have difficult conversations with people—ask for upgrades at the ticket counter, try to get the restaurant to let you order off-menu, try to improve the price on just about anything you buy (including a house or a car).

“Remember that in terms of improving your skill negotiating, the point isn’t to get the best deal possible. It’s to understand your strengths and weaknesses and to improve. That means looking back over negotiations, even simple conversations, and considering what you did right and what mistakes you made. If you ask for an airline upgrade and don’t get it, ask why not. Was the agent able to provide it? If so, why didn’t he? Could you have asked in a more effective way? That focus on past negotiations will help people become more confident in future negotiations as they’re aware of their own strengths and minimizing their weaknesses.”

Build rapport 

Building rapport, even if it’s just a basic introduction, can significantly improve the outcome of talks. The American Psychological Association found that during email negotiations, those who only exchanged their names and addresses reached deals less than 40% of the time, but when personal detail was shared, such as hobbies, deals were reached 59% of the time.

This suggests that when people feel a connection with another person, they’re keener to work with them.

McRoberts’ final piece of advice: 

“Ask. One of the most common failings we see in negotiators is that they don’t ask for what they want, either because they don’t think they can get it or because they don’t know what they want in the first place. Strong negotiators shoot for the moon so that even if they fall short they’re still going far.”

This article was originally published in . It was last updated in

Want more content like this Register for free site membership to get regular updates and your own personal content feed.