Three Reasons Why Negotiators Fail
This article covers the issues and provides insight in developing your negotiation framework to learn how to succeed.
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While volumes have been written on negotiating tactics, techniques, and strategies, relatively little is written on the reasons negotiators fail to achieve their stated goals and objectives. This article examines three essential reasons why many negotiators do not achieve their objectives. The article also touches on the issue of why so many negotiators, who are capable in one area of negotiation, find themselves literally incapable of excelling in areas of negotiation outside of their particular area of expertise.
1. Skills based Framework
The first and perhaps most essential reason many negotiators fail is that the great majority of negotiators never translate their general knowledge of negotiation into specific skill(s) that can be called upon with the same simplicity as the multiplication tables, for example.
Ask most people who negotiate professionally what framework of negotiation they implement, and they will regard you as though you are from another planet.
Even when one attempts to clarify the question by naming apparent possibilities (such as The Negotiation Experts’ Value Creation Framework, the Karrass framework, the Harvard framework, the Cohen framework, and the Fisher/Ury framework), many negotiators are at a loss to come up with a definite answer. And many who do give a specific answer are seldom able to follow up with even the most basic facts surrounding the framework they use every day of the week.
In my book, Beyond Negotiating: From Fear to Fearless, I reveal how we travelled throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, and elsewhere asking participants from our workshops whether or not they were familiar with Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The vast majority of the participants swiftly raised their hands, indicating they had read or were aware of this great resource. I then asked, “How many people know what habit number one is?” Virtually everyone lowered their hands, indicating they could not remember the first of Dr. Covey’s seven habits. Ironically, the first habit is “Be Proactive.”
The results are indistinguishable when we ask professionals who have attended any number of negotiating workshops questions such as, “What’s the first rule or guideline you were given in the negotiating course you attended recently?” Inevitably, respondents are unable to recall any more than tiny fragments of what was presented during the courses they’ve attended or from the books they’ve read on the subject of negotiation.
By contrast, if you ask a person who negotiates professionally what the result of two plus two is, what would their response be? Any answer other than four would undoubtedly be considered incorrect, as few would disagree that the product of two plus two is indeed four.
Nonetheless, ask that same person what negotiating framework he/she uses, and you will likely get a blank stare. For those who believe they have an answer to the previous question, follow up by asking, “What is the primary tenet of the framework you use?” The vast majority of respondents will fall short of a sound answer.
Why is it that so many who concur that the memorisation of the multiplication tables is an important step prior to the study of Algebra, see no bearing in committing the basic tenets of a specific negotiating framework to memory as a basic part of establishing themselves as expert negotiators?
The point isn’t that everyone should opt or necessarily follow any particular negotiating methodology; the point is that without first committing some specific negotiating framework to memory, the growth of truly exceptional negotiating skills is practically impossible to achieve, outside of a slender professional specialisation or set of issues.
Further, the omission of a particular negotiating framework also makes it much more difficult to teach others how to duplicate a result – as in cases where companies negotiate the same or similar issues continuously – which means that the lack of a particular negotiating framework becomes more and more costly the longer a relationship lasts, since mistakes are repeated time and time again.
What happens when the end result of a negotiation isn’t one that you want to duplicate? How can a negotiator ever aspire to understand where a particular negotiation went off track – if that negotiator was never certain which track the train was on in the first place? Simply put, the vast majority of professional negotiators don’t have a clue where their unsatisfactory negotiations went awry or how to avoid similar mistakes in the future. And it’s precisely because they are missing a specific negotiating foundation from which to analyse their negotiation strategy or tactics.
If you want to become a wine expert, you probably won’t accomplish your goal by going out and drinking one bottle of twelve different wines over a long weekend. The better approach would be to drink twelve cases of one wine over time and then compare and compare the characteristics of that wine to the characteristics of any other wine in the world. The resulting insight and knowledge is in fact your expertise – and your ability to make such comparisons consistently under an assortment of circumstances is your skill. Yes, there are exceptional negotiators who have never attended a negotiating course or read a book on the subject, but they are very, very few and far between. If you know a natural-born expert negotiator ask him/her if they would be willing to instruct you how to do what they can do. More often than not, there is a vast difference between someone who knows how to do something and someone who also knows how to teach someone else how to achieve the same result.
Building your negotiating expertise by committing to and then sticking with a particular framework of negotiation until you’ve learned the fundamentals of that framework will split you from the vast majority of professional negotiators. It will also significantly enhance the level of success you are capable of achieving in your negotiations and insure that you will avoid the first fundamental reason many negotiators fail.
2. Position Focus
The second fundamental reason negotiators fail is that the majority of negotiators focus on what they believe their starting positions are rather than focusing on the preferred outcome. In other words, far too many negotiators focus on the weaknesses or strengths of their starting positions rather than focusing on the accurate assessment and quantification of the real challenges and issues standing between themselves and their counterparts.
One of the most vital skills a negotiator can develop is the skill of knowing how to assess and quantify the real issues that stand between the parties – rather than acting or reacting based upon a perception of what one believes those issues to be. This is one of the most important concepts taught by authorities such as Dr. Chester L. Karrass, author of Give and Take, and yet even many experienced negotiators make the error of over estimating or underestimating their strengths and weaknesses – and the positions, strengths, and weaknesses of their counterparts.
Learning to accurately assess and quantify the apparent and hidden issues between the parties involved in a negotiation is a skill that necessitates disciplined focus and a systematic approach as precise as reading Braille or deciphering Morse code. To do it consistently and with great accuracy requires more than a measure of good luck and a handshake, because, as Karrass says, “In business as in life you don’t get what you deserve; you get what you negotiate.”
The third fundamental reason negotiators fail is fear. No matter how much you know about negotiation or about the strengths and weaknesses of your counterpart, if you are missing the courage, discipline, and determination to act in the face of risk or uncertainty, you will frequently fall short of achieving the best possible outcome in a given situation. Fear will always invite you to aim for less than you are capable of achieving. Fear vehemently discourages negotiators from pursuing what M. Scott Peck calls “The Road Less Travelled,” which is exactly the road that must be travelled in order to mould agreements that truly reflect and protect the interests of all parties involved (if that is your objective). If you are engaged in a competitive struggle where your primary objective is simply to prevail, then fear must be conquered first – or you risk being defeated by it long before you are defeated by your counterpart at the negotiating table.
Defeating fear requires a genuine commitment, a methodical process, and a journey beyond the borders of flawlessly executed tactics and techniques.
Anyone can become a significantly better negotiator quickly and systematically by removing these three fundamental reasons negotiators fail. First, identify and commit to one of the internationally recognised frameworks of negotiation and thoroughly review and memorise the main tenants of that framework until they are second nature to you. In other words, go an inch wide and a mile deep in one framework of negotiation rather than go a mile wide and an inch deep in many different frameworks of negotiation. Slowly, you will increase your skill, knowledge, and expertise. Second, cultivate an ability to identify, assess, and quantify the obvious and hidden issues that separate the parties at the beginning of a negotiation, and then focus on accomplishing your desired outcome rather than your perceptions of the positions, strengths, and weaknesses of the other parties. Finally, eliminate fear by moving Beyond Negotiating: From Fear to Fearless and you will immediately obtain greater success and greater consistency in your negotiations than you ever thought possible.
- Chevalier, D. Beyond Negotiating: From Fear to Fearless (Los Angeles: Harrison-Chevalier Publishers, 2002).
- Covey, S. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989).
- Fisher, R. Ury, W., & Patton, B., Getting to Yes (New York: Penguin Books, 1922).
- Karrass, C. Give and Take (New York: HarperCollins, 1974).
- Karrass, C. In Business As In Life – You Don’t Get What You Deserve, You Get What You Negotiate (Los Angeles: Stanford Street Press, 1996).
- Peck, M. Scott, The Road Less Travelled (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978).
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Derrick Chevalier is the Sr. Executive Vice President of Harrison-Chevalier.