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The Delicate Art of Negotiation

Trey Reely | March 2014

    There are five key components to being a successful negotiator. They include preparation, keeping emotional distance, good listening skills, clarity of communication, and closing the deal.

    Preparation is probably the most important part of the negotiation process, but it is often neglected because of a crushing time schedule or because it seems like drudgework. However, if you want something badly enough, you should make time for it. As for it feeling like drudgework, the preparation phase can actually be exciting when you see how it increases confidence and your odds of success.
    When preparing, you must first identify your interests. Try to identify what it is that you want to accomplish. Don’t think of your options as rigid objectives; consider them more as concrete illustrations of the kind of outcomes that would satisfy your interests. It is also important during the preparation phase to develop what Fisher and Ury in their book Getting to Yes call a BATNA (that is, a “Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement”). This should be the standard against which any proposed agreement is measured. It protects you from accepting terms that are too unfavorable and from rejecting terms that would be in your interest to accept. It is also more flexible than taking a bottom-line approach and permits the exploration of imaginative solutions. To generate a BATNA, devise a list of actions you might take if no agreement is reached, improve on some of the more promising ideas, convert them into alternatives, and then list them in order of preference.
    Three years ago, I wanted to add an assistant band director because the band’s numbers had grown to the point where one was justified (and I was about to go crazy doing it all by myself). My preference was for a full-time teacher, but my position was to ask for a part-time assistant. A second alternative was to see if the district would give me more funds to hire lesson teachers who could come in throughout the day.
    I researched the staffing of similar bands across the state and found that they usually had one or two directors. I shared this information with the superintendent and opted to ask for a part-time assistant. This position seemed fair and also took into acount staffing decisions that he had to make for other departments.
   It is a good idea to try to learn as much as you can about the other side of the negotation. The most common mistake in the preparation phase is not learning enough about the people with whom you will negotiate. Try to find out when the best time to talk to them is, what makes them tick, and how they think. A few years ago I worked with a principal who was useless to talk to when he was in a mood that could best be described as ornery. Once or twice I made the mistake of butting heads with him when he was in this disagreeable state and accomplished nothing. I found it was much more effective to cut off any negotiations with him as quickly as I could whenever he showed even mild signs of orneriness, and then I would try to catch him on a better day.
    Learning about the other person’s ideas is just as important as knowing their temperament. Several years ago, when block scheduling was all the rage, I may have been the only teacher who read any of the books that our principal recommended on scheduling. This enabled me to see where he was coming from philosophically, and it had the added bonus of getting me on his good side when it came time to place band on the master schedule.
    One of the best ways of preparing to negotiate is to nurture a great working relationship with everyone you encounter on a daily basis. Strong relationships are like a bank account you can draw on in times of trouble. Genuine interest about topics such as personal background, family, and hobbies can pay big dividends. Principals and superintendents are probably relieved when they can talk to an employee who is not griping or asking for something. As for parents and students, they are more likely to respond to your ideas when you have a strong reputation for doing what is best for the students. Keep in mind that maintaining ongoing relationships may be more important than solving any particular issue or problem.
    The next step is to consider the interests of the other side. You usually cannot come to an agreement without satisfying at least some of both sides’ interests. It is important to avoid what Fisher and Ury call positional bargaining. That is when one side takes a position and sticks to it at all costs. Success is much more likely when you focus on reconciling interests, rather than taking positions. Reconciling interests works because for every interest there usually are several possible outcomes that satisfy it. In addition, behind opposing positions, there usually lie many more common interests than conflicting ones. It is helpful to consider and list, as best you can, the other side’s BATNA, so that you can anticipate what resolutions the other side might find acceptable.
    Determine what is the best environment for the negotiation. Several years ago, I was determined to get a better budget because the instruments were aging terribly. I asked to have the meeting with my principal and superintendent in the band room. I set up the meeting table in the middle of the room and surrounded it with all the decrepit instruments we were using. What I had been saying for a long time became concrete once they could see the problem with their own eyes.
    It is helpful to set a written agenda for the meeting. This makes it more difficult for the other side to avoids addressing a touchy subject. It helps keep the meeting on track and avoid the problem of forgetting something under pressure. It also allows you to set the order of topics. Try to put matters you are most likely to agree on first to get off to a good start. You can present an agenda for a negotiation even if you are not the higher authority in the meeting.
    Finally, consider the best time for a negotiation. I made the mistake one year of bringing up a serious matter with my principal in an empty hallway on a Friday after school. It was a terrible way to end the week for both of us, and the matter could have waited. Fortunately, we both learned from this, and it became a running joke between us. I vowed never to bring up anything serious on a Friday again.

Keeping Emotional Distance
    The most natural response when confronted with a difficult situation is to react emotionally, often without thinking. There are three common natural reactions: striking back, giving in, or breaking off. These are not ideal ways to react. You may win a battle by striking back, but you probably will lose the war. When facing a difficult negotiation, it is often best to step back, collect your wits, and look at the situation objectively. Sometimes this step is referred to as pressing the pause button. The pause may either be for a short period of time, such as excusing yourself to the restroom, or for a longer time, as with giving yourself a night to sleep on it. Depending on the length of the pause, you may also have the opportunity to acquire additional pieces of information, contemplate what you have heard, determine what you might have said more clearly, or consider a final solution before accepting it. However, when you take a pause, be sure to set the next meeting time; some opponents may use the delay to avoid you.
    Considering that the position of band director is somewhat dictatorial in nature (“what I say goes!”), it may seem like a poor idea to negotiate with students, but really directors do it all the time. In a small band program good instrumentation is a constant concern, and instrument switches are often necessary. Asking students to play a new instrument may call for some slick negotiating. I have sometimes come to an agreement with students that if they agree to play an instrument for a semester I would never ask them to switch again for any reason. (Fortunately, they often like the switch and want to stay on the new instrument.) Demanding a decision from students on the spot can seem like coercion, so often I press the pause button for them. I tell them, “Think about what we talked about and whatever you tell me tomorrow, I expect you to stick with.” Some students still renege on their decision over time, but it is less likely. The more involved students are in the decision, the more likely they are to follow it.

Good Listening Skills
   Listening is key to any good negotiation. Almost everyone considers being a good listener a fine personal quality, but few really work at it. I find it particularly hard to listen to students when I have a practiced speech all ready to go and feel they need my guidance. Even after all these years, I have to remind myself not to do all the talking.
    There are three fundamental tips that can make anyone a better listener. First, assume the most attentive position that you can: uncross your arms and legs, sit up straight, face the speaker, and make as much eye contact as you can. Second, restate word-for-word a short statement that the other person has just said to you, or rephrase in your own words a longer idea. This acknowledges the other person’s thoughts and feelings. Good listening falls by the wayside when you are defensive or thinking about what you want to say next. Try to stay relaxed and focused.
    The best tool of a good listener is a good question. Try to plan some in advance and ask simple, to-the-point questions that are more likely to elicit clear responses. It may also help to rephrase as questions the statements of the person you are talking to with responses like, “So what you are saying is …?”

Clarity of Communication
    Clear communication is the other side of good listening. If you are clear, the listener understands your intended message. This may sound simple, but often it is not. I have talked to others about meetings we have been in, and sometimes there was so much disagreement about what was said that I wondered if we were in the same meeting. Always check to see if you are understood, and don’t ever assume that everyone understands you.
    A good outline of the key points you want to make can be useful. An example of a clear, concise outline you could use might go like this:

My point is: You must store your tuba correctly.
The reason is: The outer edges of the bell will bend if you keep placing it on end.
My example is: Look at your tuba now. See how the bell is bent back a little already?
So, my point is: Place the instrument on its side, back in the case, or on the wall mounts when not in use.

    After presenting your ideas, be willing to accept any objections or questions before you move on to close the deal.
    Another key to clear communication is to avoid raising your voice, even when the other person does. If you are negotiating with screamers, do not sink to their level. Sidestep any attacks and get back to the problem at hand, so you do not get caught up in a personality clash. If someone is yelling, responding with such phrases as, “I hear from your voice that you are upset” and “let me be sure that I understand you,” can have a calming effect. Years ago I had a superintendent known for his bullying tactics who began yelling at me, but I remained calm and simply asked, “Why are you yelling at me?” He immediately settled down, and was maybe a little embarrassed.

Knowing How to Close the Deal
    A deal closes when both sides agree on enough terms that they can move forward with the performance of the deal. During every aspect of the negotiation, a little piece of your mind should be focused on reaching a mutually acceptable solution. Practice how you want to close the negotiation before the meeting so your final push is more effective. Find a way to make the final result seem like the work of both parties, not just something you have come up with yourself. Change the you and me to a we. Work toward mutual satisfaction for both sides, not just victory for yourself.
    At the end of a negotiation, review the process and say something like, “let’s make sure we have the same understanding of what we have agreed on,” and then restate the agreement that has been reached. Do everything you can to ensure that the agreement is carried out in a timely manner, particularly by fulfilling your end of any agreement. In many situations a written version of the solution may be helpful.
    Any method of negotiation may be fairly judged by two criteria. First, it should result in an agreement that meets the interests of each side and resolves conflicting interests fairly and durably. Second, it should improve or at least not damage the relationship between the two sides. If you use the ideas discussed above in your negotiations, you should be able to fulfill both criteria.