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Updated: 14 Dec 2020

Setting The Climate For A Non-Confrontational Negotiation

Valuable advice on how not to argue with what other people say when negotiating.
by Roger Dawson

What you utter in the first few moments of a negotiation frequently sets the tone of the negotiation. The other person quickly gets a feel for whether you are working for a win-win solution, or whether you’re a tough negotiator who’s out for everything they can grab.

That’s one problem that I have with the manner that attorneys negotiate-they’re very confrontational negotiators. You receive that white envelope in the mail with black, raised lettering in the top left hand corner and you think to yourself, “Oh, no! What is it this time?” You open the letter and what’s the first communication from them? It’s a threat. What they’re going to do to you, if you don’t give them what they demand.

I remember conducting a seminar for 50 attorneys who litigated medical malpractice lawsuits, or as they prefer to call them, physician liability lawsuits. I’ve never met an attorney who was keen to go to a negotiating seminar, although that’s what they do for a living, and these people were no exception to the rule. However, the organization that was giving the attorneys their business Advised them that they were expected to attend my seminar if they wanted to get any more cases from the organization. So the attorneys weren’t too pleased about having to spend Saturday with me in the first place, but once we got started, they became involved and were having a good time. I got them absorbed in a workshop entailing a surgeon being sued over an unfortunate incident involving a nun and walked around the room to see how they were doing. I couldn’t believe how confrontational they were acting. Most of them started with a vicious threat and then became more abusive from that point on. I had to stop the exercise and tell them that if they expected to settle the case without expensive litigation (and I doubted their motives on that score) that they should never be confrontational in the early stages of the negotiation.

So, be careful what you say at the beginning. If the other person takes a position with which you totally disagree, don’t argue with them. Arguing always intensifies the other person’s desire to prove himself or herself right. You’re much better off to agree with the other person at the start and then turn it around using the Feel, Felt, Found formula. Respond with, “I understand exactly how you feel about that. Many other people have felt exactly the same way as you do right now. (Now you have diffused that competitive spirit. You’re not arguing with them, you’re agreeing with them.) But you know what we have always discovered? When we take a closer look at it, we have always found that. .”

Let’s look at some examples:

1. You’re selling something, and the other person says, “Your price is way too high.” If you disagree with him, he has a personal stake in proving you wrong and himself right. Instead, you say, “I understand exactly how you feel about that. Lots of other people have felt exactly the same way as you do when they first hear the price. When they take a closer look at what we offer, however, they have always found that we offer the best value in the marketplace.”

2. You’re applying for a job, and the human resources director says, “I don’t think you have sufficient experience in this field.” If you respond with “I’ve handled much tougher jobs that this in the past,” it may come across as, “I’m right and you’re wrong.” It’s just going to force her to defend the position she’s taken. Instead, say, “I understand exactly how you feel about that. Many other people would feel exactly the same way as you do right now. However, there are some remarkable similarities between the work I’ve been performing and what you’re looking for that is not immediately apparent. Let me tell you what they are.”

3. If you’re a salesperson and the buyer states, “I hear that you people have problems in your shipping department,” arguing with him will make him doubt your objectivity. Instead, say, “I understand how you could have heard that because I’ve heard it also. I think that rumor may have started a few years ago when we relocated our warehouse; but now major companies such as General Motors and General Electric trust us with their just-in-time inventories, and we never have a problem.”

4. If the other person exclaims, “I don’t believe in buying from off-shore suppliers. I think we should keep the jobs in this country,” the more you argue the more you’ll force him into defending his position. Instead, say, “I understand exactly how you feel about that, because these days many other people think exactly the same way as you do. But do you know what we have found? Since we have been having the initial assembly done in Thailand, we have actually been able to increase our American work force by more than 42 percent and this is why . . .”

So instead of arguing up front, which causes a confrontational negotiation, get in the habit of agreeing and then turning it around.

At my seminars, I sometimes ask a person in the front row to stand. As I hold my two hands out, with my palms facing toward the person I’ve asked to stand, I ask him to place his hands against mine. Having done that and without saying another word, I slowly start to push against him. Automatically, without any instruction, he always pushes back. People shove when you shove them. Similarly, when you argue with someone, it automatically makes him or her want to argue back.

The other great thing about Feel, Felt, Found is that it gives you time to think. Sometimes something will come up in a negotiation that you weren’t expecting. You haven’t heard anything like this before. It shocks you. You don’t know how to respond; but if you have Feel, Felt, Found in the back of your mind, you can say, “I understand exactly how you feel about that. Many other people have felt exactly the same way. However, I have always found . . .” By the time you get there, you’ll have thought of something to say. Similarly, you sometimes catch other people at a bad moment. You may be a salesperson who is calling to get an appointment and the individual says to you, “I don’t have any more time to waste talking to some lying scum-sucking salesperson.” You calmly say, “I understand exactly how you feel about that. Many other people have felt exactly the same way. However . . .” By the time you get there you will have recovered your composure and will know exactly what to say.

1. Don’t argue with people in the initial stages of the negotiation because it creates confrontation.

2. Use the Feel, Felt, Found formula to turn the anger around.

3. Having Feel, Felt, Found in the back of your mind allows you time to think when the other side throws some unexpected hostility your way.

Roger Dawson is a negotiating consultant and a sales and management speaker.

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