Negotiating Skills for Beginners

Negotating – Source: sebastian herrmann on unsplash

As anyone with small children will know, negotiating skills are learned early in life. Obviously, I do not presume to be in the same league as those who write books on “The Art of the Deal”, but I would claim to have a little first-hand experience to draw on.

A grandparent speaks of his negotiating experience

A lesson that you learn from a very early age is that screaming “I want….” generally does not work – even when you throw yourself on the floor and pound your fists on the carpet. Empirical observation of my grandchildren suggests that they have grown out of this phase by about the age of four (although with the occasional relapse when overtired). Successful negotiation generally requires a rather more subtle approach.

You should begin with a clear understanding of what you are trying to achieve – “I want a unicorn!” The likelihood of the negotiation being successful then depends on whether unicorns are available  – and whether your parents have any interest or benefit in providing one (or an acceptable substitute).  You might, for example, want to check that unicorns actually exist, or whether there is something that might reasonably be passed off as a unicorn, that will convince your more gullible friends.

What leverage do you actually have?

You might also want to consider what leverage you have in the negotiation.  This is one of those tiresome technical terms which describes the pressures that you can bring to bear on your parents and – equally importantly – the pressures that they can bring to bear on you. If you depend on them for a roof, a bed, food, etc., you need to tread carefully. However, on the plus side, they are your parents and they are likely to tolerate quite a lot, recognising some of their own behaviours when they were your age.

Pester power is a well known marketing and sales technique, as any parent or grandparent will know. There may be a point at which grown-ups simply give in, just to have a quiet life.  It is, of course, the thin end of a wedge, because, when they have given in once, you can quote this back at them the next time – ad infinitum. On balance, they tend to dig in and resist. We have already noted that the “I’ll scream and I’ll scream and I’ll scream” approach will result in a spell cooling your bottom on the naughty step, to give you time to see the error of your ways. If you are negotiating with a grandparent, you must remember that they have seen this before and the smart ones will simply hand you back to your parents to sort out.  This is probably not a good way to get your unicorn.

Divide and rule can work but only if you’re able to divide

A variation on this approach is the divide and rule technique; “Dad said that I can have a unicorn”. Irritatingly, parents often talk to each other and they may become grumpy when they find out that you have tried this ploy.  It may very well end up with another spell on the naughty step.

Threats are an option, but the problem is that they are two edged – see the point above about negotiating leverage. They are therefore a high risk strategy. You can bluff for so long, but, if your bluff is called, you end up having to make an undignified climb down. Alternatively, if you have to carry out your threat, you will probably upset your parents but you will find out shortly afterwards that being cold, hungry, wet and all alone is not much fun.

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Persuasion or hollow promises?

The next stage is to consider how you could persuade the old folks?  Is there a way to convince the wrinklies that they have something to gain by giving you a “unicorn”? 

One of the more profitable ways to explore is to offer something in return: “I will tidy my room every week if I can have a unicorn.” This seems to go down well, especially if you have a track record of leaving a very messy room.  There is, unfortunately, the downside that you will be expected to keep your side of the bargain – and on on-going basis. Failure to perform may result in your unicorn being taken away on a temporary or even permanent basis. 

Even worse, if you promised to tidy your room in exchange for the last “I want….” and you then deliberately trashed your room, you may be a bit short of credibility. Don’t be surprised if you are required to demonstrate that you can keep your room tidy for several weeks before you get your unicorn. In technical negotiating terms, this is known as developing “trust”- or lack of it.

Appeals to emotion can backfire

Emotion is an important negotiating lever: “All my friends have a unicorn” or “I am the only person in the class that doesn’t have a unicorn.” Because your parents love you, they may tolerate this for a while, but equally, they may point out that it is not true. If, for example, they know that unicorns do not actually exist, they may suggest that you should settle for a soft toy unicorn, rather than a real one, or perhaps a video game of a unicorn.  At this point in the negotiation, you may have to recognise that both sides may need to make some concessions.  It is a good idea to have thought carefully about the fall back positions that you can accept, so that you do not look too silly.

Are you really happy with what you negotiated?

If, at the end of the day, you have a slightly out of focus video of a unicorn (which looks suspiciously like a horse with a horn on its head), but you have sacrificed your pocket money and you are committed to tidying your room every week, was your negotiation successful? Well, you have your unicorn, or something that you may be able to convince your friends is a unicorn – so it is obviously a world beating success. Pity about the pocket money, but, hopefully, no one will notice if you stop tidying your room after the first week. 

If, on the other hand, you were an experienced negotiator, your friends might begin to wonder just how much of a success you had achieved. There might be two possibilities.

The first is that the negotiation was pretty much of a disaster. You forgot to check whether unicorns actually existed, or what a reasonable alternative might be. It also became apparent that you had no idea what you would do with your unicorn when you got it or where you would keep it. And you paid a very high price for a not very convincing image of a unicorn.

The second is that the unicorn never actually mattered but was a smokescreen and what you really wanted was something completely different.

Transposed to the Brexit negotiations, we assess that either our government had no idea what a Brexit unicorn was and ended up with a Bad Deal or, more troubling, they were using the Brexit unicorn to achieve a different goal, for example total deregulation especially for offshore trading.


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