Get Creative: Communication Tips to Help You Negotiate Successfully

Most people leave a lot on the table when negotiating. Find out how to get more of what you want by improving your communication strategy.

May 30, 2023

Get Creative

Illustration by: iStock/calvindexter

Negotiation is a constant in business. Every interaction — from writing a contract to setting a project deadline to covering for a team member who’s sick — requires give and take. The skills you need for negotiating, including communication, strategy, competition, cooperation, and empathy, are skills you use on a daily basis to reach successful resolutions. So why is it so hard for people to negotiate effectively?

Michele J. Gelfand is the John H. Scully Professor in Cross-Cultural Management and Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. She also teaches in several Executive Education programs. She explains what can get in the way of a successful negotiation and offers tips for using creative communication to get more of what you want — while keeping the person on the other side of the table happy, too.

Get Your Priorities Straight

“Negotiation is really about understanding what your and the other person’s priorities are, but very few people actually ask the other person,” Gelfand says. Let’s say a candidate and recruiter are negotiating over location and start date. The candidate really cares a lot about location but doesn’t really care about start date. The recruiter cares a lot about the start date but doesn’t really care about location. The best agreement is to trade off completely on these high and low priorities so that each party wins. However, people often assume that their priorities are the same as the other person’s priorities, which causes both people to lose out on what they really want. Clarifying the underlying interests — each person’s highest and lowest priorities — increases the odds that, with a little creativity, a win-win agreement can be reached.

There’s a lot more room to maneuver during a negotiation when it’s clear what each party considers a “must have” and what’s just icing on the cake. And when you know where you can compromise, it helps you straddle the line between being too cooperative, and not getting enough of what you want — and too competitive, and leaving an unhappy and dissatisfied negotiating partner.

Mind Your Metaphors

When it comes to negotiations, Gelfand says, metaphors are more than just a linguistic device. “Is negotiation like a game, a sport, a battle? Is it like dating?” You may not even realize it, but you’re most likely approaching every negotiation with one of these metaphors in mind. And that determines how you’ll plan out your strategy and communication style — and how these will be received.

The question is: Are you using the right metaphor? If you’re on a committee to plan a company offsite event and you have a competitive metaphor mindset, like a battle, you’re probably going to rub people the wrong way. Conversely, if you go into a car negotiation with a relational metaphor mindset like courting, you may not come away with what you want. The key is to assess the situation and personalities involved, and then apply the appropriate negotiating metaphor.

Focus on Interests

Communication is crucial in negotiations. You need to be clear about what you’re communicating, of course, but equally important is how you’re communicating. Steer clear of power plays and threats, which elicit negative responses and can cause conflict to escalate rapidly. Instead, focus on interests to keep emotions positive and to keep the negotiation moving forward.

The best negotiators tend to be the most creative.
Michele J. Gelfand

Even if the other party is using a negative, power-based strategy, don’t reciprocate in kind. Use a “mixed contentious strategy” instead. This could involve reminding them of your power, but recommending that you both stick to cooperative, interests-based communication to get things back on track. “The best negotiators tend to be the most creative,” Gelfand says. That means adjusting your communication tactics to align with the situation and the people involved, but keeping them positive and maintaining focus on the interests at the heart of the negotiation.

Putting Insights into Action

Here are some best practices to help you hone your negotiating skills:

  • Make sure priorities are clear — both yours and those of the other party. It will keep you focused and help you reach a deal more quickly and more successfully, without heat-of-the-moment missteps.
  • Think about what kind of metaphor you’re applying to a negotiation. Is it the right one?
  • Be creative when negotiating to get the best results for everyone involved, and stay focused on interests.
  • Remember that good communication is crucial to prevent misunderstandings and keep negotiations on track. Keep communication strategies positive and avoid power plays and threats.

Instead of only focusing on the terms or logistics of your next negotiation, consider and fine-tune the communication that underpins it. You — and your negotiating counterparts — are much more likely to walk away feeling satisfied with the end result.

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