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  • Writer's pictureDanielle Terranova

Embracing The Softer Side of Negotiations

Cropped photo of a person showing an extended handshake.

Last year, it often felt as though a day couldn't pass without a major sector of the American economy going on strike. From Starbucks to Hollywood, Amazon to Detroit, and various labor unions in between, workers were asserting their collective bargaining rights to advocate for fair compensation and trade practices. However, the outcomes of these negotiations were often less than favorable. While all parties likely approached the bargaining table with sincere intentions, negotiations frequently reached a stalemate, leaving workers on picket lines for months and companies hemorrhaging money. Observers wondered how long it would take for these opposing parties to reach an agreement.

Negotiation practices have evolved a great deal since “The Art of War” emerged from its 5th-century slumber into the organizational ethos of the 1980s. Perhaps I’m dating myself, but who can forget the moment when Bud Fox locked eyes with Gordon Gekko and said, “If your enemy is superior, evade him. If angry, irritate him. If equally matched, fight and if not, split and reevaluate.” With a smile and a firm pat on the back, the duo summarized what many of us still believe about negotiation – it’s an all-out war, and only the strong survive.

There is no shortage of negotiation experts out there with the skills, tips, and tricks you need to come away from the bargaining table a winner. They’ll dazzle you with impressive terms like ZOPA (Zone of Possible Agreement), BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) Anchoring, and Reservation Price, while warning you about the negative impacts of self-reinforcing incompetence. But what too many negotiation experts fail to adequately emphasize is that negotiations are an interdependent decision-making process. The outcomes depend on the actions of both parties, who need each other to strike a deal. Rather than viewing negotiations as conflicting sides protecting their interests, it's more beneficial to see them as opportunities to build, mend, and maintain productive partnerships.


A Relationship-Oriented Approach to Negotiation

If we agree leaders are responsible for cultivating the potential in results and relationships, we can’t leave half the equation off the negotiation table and expect positive outcomes. While you may win the result of a negotiated deal in your best interests, you’ll pay a long-term consequence of fractured, resentful and untrustworthy partnerships with those you depend on to succeed. So, what can we do to ensure we arrive at the negotiating table with the long-term health of the partnership in mind?


1️⃣ Do your homework

Before you show up to any negotiation, take some time to learn what matters to the other side. Approach it with genuine curiosity and try to see the situation from their perspective. This practice will enrich your understanding of the salient issues up for consideration and help identify the stakes involved. It also initiates the negotiation process with the relationship at the forefront. Always seek to understand before you intervene, and watch how receptive people become when they feel you've done your job in appreciating where they're coming from.    

2️⃣ Start with the right goals in mind

The high stakes involved in most negotiations can cause tunnel vision. We can mistakenly assume that an agreement is the goal when really, a healthy, productive partnership is the real prize. Begin negotiations with long-term relationship goals in mind and highlight the opportunities this negotiation presents to develop a strong partnership.

3️⃣ Have more than one path to a deal

Negotiations fail before they even start when one or both parties come to the negotiating table with a single path to a deal. Single-ask negotiations create a win-lose scenario that inhibits agreement and compromises the integrity of the partnership when the other side feels their hand has been forced. Come to the table with more than one way to reach an agreement and allow the other side to contribute toward final terms.  

4️⃣ Anticipate the need for flexibility and compromise

It is a false assumption to believe the best negotiators engage in a battle of wills where they use their strength, rigidity, and toughness to outsmart their opponent. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Parties come to a negotiation expecting some level of flexibility and compromise from everyone involved. We deeply believe in a sense of fairness and turn away from one-sided negotiations and partnerships. Enter negotiations assuming that a little give-and-take is required to protect the long-term health of the relationship and plan areas of flexibility in advance.   

5️⃣ Check yourself before you wreck yourself

Not everyone came from a big family of Italian yellers like I do, and we all have different reactions to conflict. Negotiations are a minefield, almost guaranteed to trigger some level of a fight-or-flight response from everyone involved. Angry, defensive, frustrated, and withdrawn people are not good negotiation partners because they are more focused on protecting themselves in the short-term than developing a strong, long-term partnership. Recognize the physical, emotional, and behavioral signs that the primitive brain has taken over, and take a break to give everyone’s executive functioning the chance to come back online.

6️⃣ Remember the Ripple Effect

When we view a negotiation as something solely between the parties involved, we overlook the fact that others are watching how we behave. If we allow the pressures of negotiation to turn us into untrustworthy, unpredictable, and unstable partners, we pay the price not only with the direct parties involved but also with every future stakeholder who learns of the negotiation outcomes. Remember, negotiations are an essential opportunity to demonstrate what you're made of when the going gets tough. You can't go wrong by taking a long-term and values-driven approach.       

This approach to negotiations underscores a fundamental shift in mindset – from viewing negotiations as battlegrounds to seeing them as opportunities for partnership building and mutual benefit. At the end of the day, it is a true test of leadership character to prioritize the long-term health of relationships over short-term gains, strive to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes, and foster trust and cooperation that extends far beyond the negotiation table. As negotiators, it is our responsibility to approach the process with humility, empathy, and a steadfast commitment to building relationships that endure the tests of time and adversity. Through this lens, negotiations cease to be mere transactions and instead become transformative opportunities for growth, understanding, and shared prosperity. 


Headshot of Danielle Terranova

Danielle Terranova is the voice behind Leadership Lessons with Danielle.

She has been an executive coach since 2015 and owner of Terranova Consulting, LLC since 2019.


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