The art of negotiation

May 22, 2018

Interview with the Harvard expert Eugene B. Kogan

Based on your experience in global negotiation practices, what are some of the major reasons why negotiations fail?

Negotiations differ significantly from one another, but three ideas are worth bearing in mind:

  • Strategic Listening
    Those who negotiate often fail to grasp the other person’s true interests.  There often is a considerable difference between a person’s underlying “interests” (what they really want) and their articulated “positions” (what they say they want).  Here’s a simple, but fundamental point: to gauge what your interlocutor really wants is hard work.  This is because, with trust lacking especially at the beginning, the other side will be reluctant to reveal their true preferences, concerned that you may exploit these vulnerabilities.  You may well feel the same way.

    In my WU Global Executive MBA module on “Negotiation and Conflict Management,” I frequently invoked the insights of 18th-century French diplomat Francois de Callieres.  One of Callieres’s admonitions was that to be effective, a negotiator has to “speak much less than listen.”  Failure to identify underlying interests makes it much harder for the parties in the negotiation to notice that they may have “asymmetries” of interests.  That is, one side in the negotiation may care more about a specific aspect of the deal than the other party—or may have different time preferences—creating opportunities for valuable trades.

Picture of two hands of people talking to each other
"Speak much less than listen" - negotiation is much about knowing the interests of the other party. Photo © CC0 Licence
  • Awareness of Alternatives
    Many negotiators do not ask themselves what the alternatives to a negotiated agreement are.  Reminding yourself and your counterparts about the immediate and long-term consequences of negotiation failure—“walking away from the [negotiating] table”—may clarify the urgency of making difficult, but necessary compromises “at the table.”


  • “Behind-the-table” Dynamics
    Often, negotiators “at the table” are not the ones to render the final decision on the deal being discussed. They negotiate the deal at the table, and then have to persuade the “behind the table” audiences to accept it.  (To use a very simple example, if you are buying a family car, you will likely have to persuade your husband or wife to approve the purchase.)  Therefore, negotiators are well advised to craft a deal, which the constituencies behind the table on both sides can accept. One third of a negotiator’s job is to finalize the deal at the table, but the other two thirds are: (a) to make the agreement implementable by the constituencies and (b) sustainable over time.

What is the most important skill an effective negotiator should possess?

Thinking about the “negotiation universe”—the internal and external contexts in which the current negotiation is taking place—is critical.  Thus, a negotiator must be effective “at the table,” cognizant of dynamics “behind the table” (on both sides), and disciplined to see “beyond the table” (on both sides).  At WU, I advised my GEMBA participants to use both a “microscope” (enabling them to be deft at the interpersonal at-the-table dynamics, such as active listening) and a “telescope” (empowering them to consider the “negotiation universe,” such as the fundamental power dynamics and broader ramifications of the single deal they are working on).

Coming from the academic “world of thought,” this is relatively easy for me to articulate.  But executive participants live in the “world of action.”  Henry Kissinger highlighted this point when he observed that leaders spend time in a “constant struggle to rescue an element of choice from the pressure of circumstance.”  Negotiators need to develop a strategic, perspective-taking mind habit—Take Time to Think—as part of preparing for the negotiation.  Simple as this suggestion may sound, it is easy to lose track of in the “world of action.”

3 people sitting at a table and negotiate
The "negotiation universe" and "world of thought" - successful negotiators know how to pay attention to both of these concepts. Photo © CC0 Licence

Are there basic guidelines that executives, who find themselves in complex negotiation situations, can follow to create mutually-beneficial solutions?

  • Manage Your Internal Negotiations
    Make sure that both your boss and your subordinates are on board with the thrust of your negotiation approach.  If you are negotiating on behalf of your manager, he or she will have to sign off on the deal.  If you are representing a team, you will have to persuade them to implement your deal with gusto.  For best long-term results, keep both internal audiences regularly in mind as you negotiate.


  • Map out Your “Negotiation Universe”
    Now that you’ve considered the internal context for your deal, think about the external one: what are the connections between this negotiation and others?  How do these connections impact the negotiation at hand?  Specifically, what advantages and constraints does this external context present?


  • Engage in Strategic Empathy
    What does your counterpart’s negotiation universe look like?  Specifically, think about how your counterpart is managing his / her internal and external contexts: what kind of a deal can you craft that will make it palatable to the internal constituencies – and sustainable given the external constraints?

Negotiation techniques and skills are part of the Global Executive MBA program. For more information click here.

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