Effective negotiating skills

To achieve your desired outcome you must understand the process

Misconceptions about negotiation abound. Some view it as primarily related to selling, others see it as a confrontational process, with a ‘win at all costs’ objective. Others view it as a sign of weakness to concede anything in the course of the negotiation. It is understandable that many would draw such conclusions, particularly when observing the fall-out from industrial disputes and other forms of high-profile negotiation. The actual meaning of negotiation paints a rather different picture.

Negotiation simply means: ‘discuss in order to reach an agreement’. Negotiation then is not about discussion for discussion’s sake; it has a clear purpose. However, even where a desirable win-win outcome is the objective, it has to be acknowledged that between both parties there will be variances in experience, attitudes, circumstances, strengths and weaknesses. For this reason each party will aim to capitalise on their own strengths and exploit the weaknesses of the other. Almost inevitably there will be a blend of collaborative and competitive behaviours which characterise the negotiation process. In order to be an effective negotiator, an understanding of the process is required at the outset.

The PROBE process

Ineffective negotiators either fail to recognise that there is a negotiation process or underestimate the importance of planning for each phase. The mnemonic PROBE is an aid to remembering the five phases of negotiation: Preparing, Rehearsing, Opening, Bargaining and Ending.


You need to begin the preparation phase well in advance of the negotiation. It will involve in-depth research, the collection and collation of data, establishment of objectives and definition of negotiating strategies. It is important to define your objectives for the bargaining process. Determine the optimal achievement (the best outcome), the minimum achievement (the least you will accept) and the target achievement (the realistic aim).

In the bargaining phase you will need to trade concessions, so begin thinking of what they might be and how to construct an appropriate package. You will need to carefully study the likely negotiating position of your counterpart. Although you will necessarily have to make some assumptions, your assessment should be preceded by in-depth research. Knowledge really is power when it comes to preparing for a negotiation.

Place yourself in the shoes of your counterpart and ask yourself the following two questions: What do they really need and want from the negotiation? What negotiable variables would be particularly important to them? Then make a list of all their possible objectives and prioritise the list. Following that, consider your position and ask yourself these questions: What concessions am I prepared to make? When will they be traded? What areas are absolutely non-negotiable?

If possible, try to determine the negotiating style of your counterpart, perhaps by talking to people who have negotiated with the other party in the past. Assess the power-base of your counterpart – they may possess certain expertise in key areas or be in a more powerful position due to the information they hold. If you are preparing for a team-based negotiation, you should know who the key players are in terms of decision making.

When your research is complete, make a list of the strengths and weaknesses of both parties and critically analyse them. Now begin to consider your overall negotiating strategy in the light of this information: consider your likely opening stance, the areas of common ground and your walk-away point. Ensure that you assemble all the necessary documentation (reports, costings, statistics etc) connected with the negotiation.


This is a phase which is often overlooked or deemed unnecessary, yet it can act as a real confidence booster and help to remove some of the uncertainty surrounding the negotiation. There are various ways you can rehearse for a negotiation. It can be as simple as creating your own mental images of the negotiation and visualising success; on the other hand, you may choose to stage a full-length role playing simulation.

If you are preparing for a team-based negotiation, you can adopt techniques such as playing devil’s advocate, role playing members of the other team and conducting team appraisals (where each member of the team gives a critical appraisal of the performance of each of the others). When rehearsing, try to envision all the possible tactical moves that the other party might make and determine what you will do to counter them. Where possible, always visit the actual venue where the negotiation will take place.


Just as a sprinter needs a good start out of the blocks, you need to get through the opening phase of the negotiation in a way that leaves you feeling confident and in control. Relationship building is a key part of this opening phase. This is the time to establish common ground and ensure that the purpose of the negotiation is crystal clear. Exploring each other’s requirements will naturally take place during this phase but the more you can steer the discussion to issues around your counterpart’s position the better. Avoid talking too much – the more information you can glean, the more you will feel in control, and incisive questioning and active listening are your key tools for this. Observe carefully body language signals throughout the opening phase and evaluate attitudes. Never make concessions during this phase.


The bargaining phase is the heart of the negotiation. If you are new to professional negotiations this part can seem quite stressful. However, if you have prepared and rehearsed thoroughly there should be no undue cause for concern. Here are the key points to remember:

  • A negotiation is not the time for a display of philanthropy, concessions must always be conditional.
  • Never make the other party look small and avoid language that could inflame the situation – avoid sarcasm and personal attacks.
  • Remember, you have created a concessions package with which to trade, so keep that package open and do not allow the other party to close-off individual elements.
  • Use silence to good effect and do not be too quick to answer when a question is posed. At the same time do not become impatient when you are waiting for the answer to a key question.
  • The other party must feel that gaining concessions from you is like getting ‘blood out of a stone’, because people value what they work hard for.
  • Always remember that the value your counterpart places on a concession, may be quite different from the value you place on it. Make sure that the concessions you receive in return have value to you.
  • Throughout the bargaining phase, keep in mind your pre-determined optimal achievement, target achievement and minimum achievement positions. 
  • If one particular issue appears to be an insurmountable hurdle, then break it up into smaller parts and seek agreement on these.
  • Periodically, review and summarise the progress that has been made and reaffirm the common ground.
  • At key points, remember the value of the hypothetical question: ‘What if we took this approach’, ‘Just for a moment, let us suppose that was not the case’. 
  • Aim to minimise the value of the other party’s concessions and lower their aspiration levels.
  • A significant part of the bargaining phase involves testing assumptions, challenging views and facts and undermining arguments. Remember, you may need to continue to test in this way as the negotiation progresses.
  • Use adjournment as a tactic, either to give yourself time to think or to increase the pressure on your counterpart.
  • Do not be intimidated by overly emotional behaviour or displays of power. These are frequently used tactics.
  • Always acknowledge the viewpoint of your counterpart. This helps to maintain the relationship.
  • Do not force the pace of the bargaining process, instead allow it to unfold naturally.


Discernment is required in order to bring the process to a successful conclusion. If you have been able to take control during the negotiation then you will feel confident in proactively taking the lead in summarising what has been discussed and agreed. Praise the commitment, professionalism and fair-mindedness of your counterpart and conclude with a firm handshake. It is essential that there is a detailed and accurate written record of what has been agreed. If you undertake to produce this you will continue to retain a sense of control. When the written record has been produced, both parties to the negotiation should sign the final agreement.

Personal skills

Understanding the process is key to becoming an effective negotiator but you also need to display a range of personal skills. As mentioned, you should use incisive questioning throughout: predominantly open questions to draw out as much information as possible but also closed questions when seeking to close-off items and confirm agreement.

Asking questions is of little value unless accompanied by active listening. In this regard a useful memory aid is the FREE mnemonic (Facts, Reading between the lines, Empathy and Evaluation). Listening for facts is of course important but so is listening to what is not said: the accent on a word or phrase, the quiver in the voice and the side-stepped or unanswered question all carry a hidden message. Empathy is always important as it allows you to see things from the standpoint of your counterpart and of course the ability to interrelate all that you have heard allows you to proceed with insight and purpose.

Personal image is also important. The power of what you say will be diluted if your appearance distracts or if your body language signals conflict with the verbal message. Aim to be assertive throughout the negotiation but an overly aggressive stance will either anger or intimidate your counterpart and place them on the defensive. A passive-aggressive approach will frustrate and breed mistrust, whereas a purely passive stance may lead to the surrender of control to the other party.

Some people love negotiating; so much so that they almost enjoy the process more than the outcome. Others find negotiating a real stress-inducing challenge. If you are one of the latter, you can master effective negotiation if you apply the points discussed and develop the requisite personal skills-set.

Rob Robson acis is a principal lecturer at the University of Greenwich Business School and author and course presenter at TMF Training

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