Five Fundamental Skills for Effective Negotiation: Strategic Thinking

After completing Information Gathering, the next logical step is deciding how to use the information that you’ve compiled. This is called strategy – and it’s a skill that some folks just do not have.

Some believe that this is just a matter of learning how to play chess. To a degree, this is correct. The game of chess is a strategy game – where the true masters learn all of the potential strategies that can be employed and how to work with, through and around them to reach their ultimate goal.

Chess is a good basic analogy for this skill. You have a playing field, the chess board, which delineates the boundaries of the engagement. You have pieces that each play a particular role and represent different values. You take turns “moving”/”negotiating” the board, analogous to the back-and-forth nature of concessions in a traditional view of negotiation. So, in all, it’s relatively appropriate to think of negotiation as chess.

The problem with using chess as the analogy is that chess has fixed rules for operation. A rook can ONLY move laterally and a bishop can ONLY move diagonally. Granted, this could be a metaphor for how you have various constraints put upon you in a negotiation. In actuality, however, you ALWAYS have two extra options available to you.

You can create a new move… or you can walk away without finishing the “game.” These are important and illustrate why strategic thinking is so valuable. If you have not considered what impact your behavior will have on the other side, you probably have not actually completed Information Gathering, thus, you aren’t prepared to fully understand what is on the table and how you both might be able to meet your needs.

Strategic Thinking is also an active skill – one that must be employed while in the heat of the negotiation. Also thought of as “thinking on your feet,” it’s the ability to respond to the other sides’ tactics in an appropriate manner. It’s possible that you could, in some situations, effectively pause the negotiations to go back to your corner and consider your next move. However, this takes Time (the next skill) – which you might not have.

So, how do you develop this skill? First, recognize whether you’re predisposed to it. In fact, there’s some research that suggests that from a personality perspective, people are either born as strategic thinkers or tactical thinkers – which allows them to either always see the trees (tactical) or the forest (strategic), but not both.

I’m not sure I agree with this extreme idea, but the truth remains that I have seen enough first-hand negotiations to witness what happens when someone doesn’t think strategically to say that it really doesn’t matter whether you’re predisposed at strategic thinking or not. You MUST become good at it, or you must find someone to help you with this step. In other words, it’s imperative that you learn how to think three, five and ten steps ahead to reach your end goal.

Next, when faced with a negotiation, sit down and ponder your moves. This starts with your intent, moves to your motives and ends with your behavior. You can come out of the gate with guns blazing – looking for everything you want and only seeking your own objectives. This will set a specific tone and you need to think about how the other side will respond. On the flip side, you can come out conceding every point, seeking to be as “cooperative” as possible. This also will set a specific feel/tone to the negotiation.

But it’s not as hard as you might imagine to envision what will happen if you take one of these moves. If you come out guns blazing, the other side is probably going to respond in kind. Which means that you’re setting the stage for an aggressive negotiation and will be fighting for things along the way. On the other hand, too soft, and you’ll give up everything. This is where some of the experts obviously advise differently. One camp says “play stupid” and seek what you can get through self-depreciating behavior. Another camp (pardon the pun, but it’s actually Jim Camp) says that you should always “Start with No” as a way to encourage discussion.

The net result of Strategic Thinking is an ability to not only see what your path could be, but to also see where your opponent is going to move. For if you play a win-win strategy against someone with a win-lose strategy, who do you think is most likely going to lose? If you’ve considered your various options and thought Strategically, you’ll know how to respond.

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