Openings matter in negotiation. And they matter lot. It’s possible to start off poorly, of course, but later recover your footing. You also may start well, but encounter problems subsequently.
Nevertheless, how parties engage each other and frame the issues at the outset often sets a pattern for how things unfold thereafter. When people begin by successfully “negotiating how to negotiate,” they are far more likely to reach a mutually satisfactory outcome—and do so without stressing their relationship.
As we’ve seen in this unit, negotiation strategy is implemented in an on-going series of tactical moves. The choices you make should be shaped by both your overall goals and how your counterpart responds to the whatever you say and do. Negotiation is a dynamic process, a dance that requires adjustment as you move forward.
For example, consider a pair of tactical decisions that you must make in virtually any negotiation:
- How demanding are you at the beginning of the process?
- Do you disclose your priorities openly or are you cautious about revealing information?
In the activity below you’ll get to see how your answers compare with those of 14,000 viewers of a longer survey on HBR.org entitled, “Assessment: What Kind of Negotiator Are You?”
To see how more than 14,000 HBR.org readers responded to that question, reveal the hidden comment below.
The first two choices involve stating a strong position initially, though for different reasons. Look again at the difference in the wording at the end of each sentence:
A. I state my position strongly early on, so that my counterpart does not think I’m weak.
B. I state my position strongly but may become more flexible if my counterpart seems trustworthy.
Only 6 percent elected the A. More than four times as many (26 percent) picked the B. The latter choice allows for a possible change in the negotiator’s strategy depending on their impression of their counterpart. By contrast, those who chose option A were focused on the initial impression that the counterpart is forming of them.
In negotiation, the impression of your counterpart and their assessment of you are equally important. While those early judgments may not be wholly accurate, they can distort subsequent perceptions and negatively impact the process going forward. A person who is merely being cautious at the outset may be misread as cold and calculating. As a consequence, the counterpart may also become more reticent and suspicious.
Options C and D are likewise paired—both focus on how your own behavior will affect your counterpart.
C. I try not to seem too tough, because it might make the other side hostile.
D. I like to show at the outset that I’m open-minded and flexible. It helps bring out the best in other people.
Fourteen percent in the sample picked C (“not seeming too tough”) to avoid provoking hostility. It’s a glass-half-empty motivation. A much bigger group (56 percent, in fact), apparently liked the more positive idea of “bringing out the best in other people.” That’s admirable, but of course with some individuals, their best behavior may not be all that good. The task, then, is being open and flexible without making yourself vulnerable.
Far fewer—only six percent—selected the first version compared to the many more—26 percent—who picked the second.
Now let's look at another question from the HBR.org survey and see how you would respond compared to their readers.
After completing the activity above, click in the icon below for an analysis of the HBS.org survey results.
Relatively few respondents to the HBR.org survey (12 percent) chose option D. (Information is power. I reveal as little as possible about my priorities.) By contrast, 31 percent chose A. (I usually give the other party a good sense of my priorities so that we can explore mutually beneficial trades.)
Perhaps these self-reports reflect people’s true behavior, though the “good sense” phrase is open to interpretation. Moreover, some of these people may think of themselves as generally forthcoming, but when it comes down to specific cases, they actually are more guarded.
If you combine people who instead picked either option B or C, a majority of respondents admit that they hedge somewhat when it comes to how much they disclose.
B. I acknowledge some of my priorities—especially the obvious ones—but overstate a few items in order to have bargaining chips to give away later on.
C. I acknowledge some of my priorities—especially the obvious ones—but also keep some close to the vest since the other side may exploit my needs.
Again the action is the same (chesting some cards), but the motivation is different 27 percent said that they want some bargaining chips for future use, while the other 31 percent do the same in order to protect themselves from exploitation.
If you add the percentage of people choosing B, C, or D, it means that seven out of ten admit to holding back somewhat. Depending on the situation, sometimes that may be justifiable. But it should always be a conscious decision, one that takes into account that cageyness may compromise relationship building.
In short, make sure that your tactics are consistent with your intended approach overall. If, for question one, you were among the 56 percent who professed a desire to demonstrate that you are open-minded and flexible, you may be contradicting and undercutting yourself, if you were among the great majority of people who chest their cards to some extent for question two.
The wide variation in responses to the two questions you just answered underscores two important lessons. First, don’t assume that other people you deal with view negotiation the same way that you do. They may misread your intentions (and you may well misread theirs).
Also, did you spot how inconsistent many people are? Fifty-six percent of the respondents said that they want to demonstrate that they are open-minded and flexible. (You may have said the same thing.) Yet for question two, an even bigger majority admitted that when it comes to revealing information, they chest their cards, at least to some extent.
The lesson? Watch out for you own inconsistencies. Your tactical choices should align with your broader strategy.
It is said that “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” That adage reminds us that at some point, a time comes when we must take action rather than simply weigh the various paths we might take. That is certainly true for negotiation. So, when we take that first step, it is important that we’re headed in the right direction.