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Updated: 19 Jul 2024

What Every Negotiator Must Know Before they Negotiate



Learn the strengths, alternatives and options that are available to every negotiator before they make an agreement.

Ignorance is Bliss’ and ‘Look before you leap‘ are old proverbs that occasionally haunt all too many of us. We side step some of our more irksome problems, hoping that if we ignore them long enough they will simply go away. Either that, or else we tackle our daily problems without giving any thought about planning our approach and plunge right into them to get them out of the way. Quite often, the problems that we either ignored or blindly leapt into see us land in a muddled mess. Afterwards, we tend to end up salving our wounded egos when things didn’t turn quite how we expected them to instead. In our post game analysis, we find ourselves woefully shaking our heads and trying to figure out what went wrong.


Beginning a negotiation in a state of sublime ignorance or leaping into a negotiation without preparation, we often find ourselves blindly attempting to circumnavigate and struggle our way through our meetings. If a professional league coach were to attempt to tackle their opponents without getting some key intelligence about the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing team, they would soon run into profound difficulties while trying to catch up and make adjustments during the course of what would sure to be a very trying match. Likewise, this hapless coach would add to their difficulties by failing to fully appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of their own key players. It’s too late to learn as you go along because that ship has already sailed. The pre-game process for a negotiation is no less different.

Four Steps to Eliminate Ignorance and Leaping Blind into a Negotiation

We need to access the strengths and weaknesses of our side before a negotiation. It is equally vital to do the same for our counterparts in the negotiation process. So, to help us prepare in advance, here are 4 preliminary steps we need to take before we tackle a negotiation.

1. Know the consequences:

We should never automatically assume that a negotiation is going to result into a successful agreement. Always ask yourself, ‘Okay! If all else fails, what other choices or options do I have?‘ This means that it is most desirable to have some options or alternatives to turn to when the talks collapse. To use the popular parlance of negotiation, this means we need to know our BATNA which is the acronym for Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement, a term popularised by Roger Fisher and William Ury in their best selling novel titled, ‘Getting to Yes – Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In’.

Our BATNA is critical to know because it provides us with a boundary line. It is a warning bell to advise us when it’s time to walk away from what otherwise might be a counter productive agreement which is more detrimental than beneficial. It establishes a more specific rather than a general demarcation point for our reservation price. Any agreement made below or above this point, depending on whether we are the ones making or considering an offer, would not be a beneficial agreement. So, at this point, we must have our best available alternative to turn to instead. This an essential phase of our pre-planning process.

2. What’s the other team going to do?

Another equally vital portion of the preparation equation is to determine and try and figure out our opposite number’s BATNA. We must remember that they too are considering their viable alternatives and options, and this allows them to determine a cut off point where they will walk away from the table.

No, it’s not as if we are reading their minds although it might seem like it on occasion. If we can reasonably establish what our counterpart might be considering by putting ourselves in their shoes from their business perspective, we might be able to more accurately or roughly ascertain a potential zone of agreement which is mutually compatible to both parties.

3. What are the real issues on the table?

Fisher and Ury have said that when we sit down to negotiate, each side will be presenting their bargaining and negotiating positions. It’s like a number of different styles of poker games where several cards are visible to all the players sitting at the green felt table in a smoky back room, but some of the cards are dealt face down. The cards we see are the positions that both sides reveal, while the cards we don’t see might be the real cards that motivate our betting. Those cards which we don’t see are similar to the real interests or driving motivations behind the positions we use at the bargaining table. This is the information that each side really wants to obtain.

We might want to increase our sales by making a strategic alliance with another company. However, our real interest might be to increase our productivity because in fact our sales are down and our bottom line is starting to get that nasty tinge of red that scares the heck out of our bean counters. Our real interest then, is to secure our professional and financial security.

4. Understand the priorities

Knowing our own interests and figuring out their real interests is not enough. We can’t just make up a simple list and figure that’s all we have to do. We need to prioritize and rank this list according to importance. By understanding our own priorities and our counterpart’s priorities we can more effectively consider our concessions in terms of their strengths relative to each side. The idea is to give up on less important concessions which may have value to them, while getting the other side to give us concessions which are more important to us.

It’s all part of the dance. The idea is to make sure you’re not trying to Tango while they’re trying to do the Foxtrot as you’re obviously going to end up tripping over each other’s feet. It can be like watching a teenager dance with a grandparent to a techno beat at a wedding. As you go back and forth, you begin to get some clarity on the real issues and after awhile, and providing you’re both on the same page, you can get some synchronization and realize there is a basis to help each other achieve our mutual goals and business objectives. Here is where we can both make a compatible deal through mutual problem solving.


Don’t leap into a negotiation if you are ignorant about what you need to know about your own needs and alternatives, and similarly, don’t neglect to put yourself in the other side’s shoes either. Good planning and preparation are essential to successful negotiations. So, play it smart or else you might find yourself completely out of the game.

  1. Roger Fisher and William Ury, Bruce Patton, ‘Getting to Yes-2nd Edition’, Penguin Books, (1991).
  2. Harvard Business Essentials ‘Negotiation’ Harvard Business School Press, (2003).
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    Eman on

    Thanks for such article, it improves my knowledge in this field as well as take me to new meanings in business.

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