How and why to listen well during negotiations

Publication date: 30 January 2019
Article type: Blogs and Articles

Kevin Lee-Simion speaks to industry experts about listening as an influencing tool in the negotiation process.

NegotiationWhen you think about a typical negotiation, what springs to mind? For most, it will be a group of people sitting around a table, awkwardly debating or even shouting demands at each other in the hope that one side will give in. 

But there is a lot more to a negotiation than just talking. One essential aspect of negotiation, and one that is all too often overlooked, is listening – for the simple reason that listening will help a negotiator obtain information about the person with whom they are talking. This information can come by genuinely hearing to what is being said… as well as listening to what is not being said. 

This allows any negotiator to gain the upper hand and adopt an influential position enabling them to tailor their responses so both sides come away with a win. So how can you put this principle into practice? 

We’ve brought together three commentators, from different areas of industry, and asked them to share their experiences about listening in a negotiation.

‘Interrupt only for clarification, not correction’

  • Attorney and CEO Shahara Wright talks about how she listens, and outlines some of the tactics she uses to get the best deals for her clients.
  • Hemant Chandran, Authorised Officer at international banking firm UBS, shares his views on how listening when negotiating is about creating a dialogue between two parties, so a negotiation doesn’t become a series of soliloquies.
  • Author and coach Nicole Soames stresses the importance of active listening and drawing on emotional intelligence to understand the other party in negotiations. When both parties understand each other, there is a high chance of a win-win situation, she argues.

Shahara Wright is Owner and Lead Attorney of The Wright Firm and Founder of The CEO Effect, an organisation that helps small business owners who want to implement strategy to build capacity

‘Be the first to listen and then talk’

Having great listening skills is essential for negotiation. If you want a deal to work, you have to understand what the other side needs. Notice I didn’t say ‘wants’. If you can understand what the other side needs to be successful, then it makes it a lot easier for you to get what you want out of the deal.

Let people talk. Sometimes, people have a lot that they need to say without being interrupted. If possible, let someone else take notes while you listen. Interrupt only for clarification, not correction. If there are details missing, wait until the person is done to go back and get clarity on the situation.   

I always believe it is best to listen first and then talk. As an attorney, I usually get my client’s side first so it is hard to know what the other side really wants. Once I get a chance to connect with the other attorney or party, I have an opportunity to understand their point of view. It makes it easier to draft language that is acceptable.

The best advice I can give is ‘think it is about getting what you need’. Wants change. You may want $100,000, but you may need $50,000. If you understand that, you can ensure your needs are met, and everything else is a bonus. If you just say that you want $100,000 and the other side objects to that, then you don’t know where to draw the line in terms of what is important.

I am a big believer in being up-front. Just say what you require to make the deal work.  Nothing annoys me more than when an agreement is nearly worked out and then someone says “oh, by the way, I need “xyz” too’. It will ruin a negotiation. Make a list of important things so that you don’t forget. Some things may change throughout the process, but you can always use your checklist to make sure you stay on track. 

In terms of taking a hard or soft approach to negotiation, your tactics must depend on the situation. I generally start with a soft approach. As I negotiate business deals, the parties are usually somewhat familiar with one another. My job is not to blow the deal. So I like starting with a soft approach.

If I am drafting the contract to send to the other side, I will send a letter introducing myself and issues that I think are of particular concern. If I am responding to a previously drafted contract, I will call and speak to the other attorney to see what things we can work out quickly. Most things can be worked out with a phone call. 

But if there are things that cannot be agreed upon, then a take it or leave it approach is usually my next move.

Shahara Wright is Owner and Lead Attorney of The Wright Firm and Founder of The CEO Effect, an organisation that helps small business owners who want to implement strategy to build capacity.

‘Give some, take some’

‘Hear me out,’ is what the aggrieved often plead. Have we heard them out? Knowing the complete story, rather than tidbits, is always a sure way to assess a situation, judge a case, or reach an amicable resolution. A fair negotiation is one where both parties listen and respond. Ethical fairness will negotiate success for all of us. Good negotiators are those who listen and link. As you progress, connections between facts and reason will determine informed judgment. 

‘Empathy is the key to active, earnest listening’

Empathy is the key to active, earnest listening. By listening, we gather a lot of crucial information and respond more positively to the other person. While clarifying their points of view and reflecting on them we become participants in a dialogue rather speakers of a soliloquy. An active listener is a winner on the negotiation table.

Always hear the other person out first. By doing this, you will be able to considerably enhance your role as negotiator. Your thoughts from now on will be better reordered and structured, and enrich the conversation mostly to your benefit.

But let’s be fair and sensible. You cannot always get what you want. You can negotiate, but it is not always advisable to be insistent. You must list down and prioritise, for yourself, what the most important points are for you. They are non-negotiable. Further, let the other person win small 'battles' so you can win the 'war', so to speak. Somehow, the idea should strike home that no one has lost or compromised in the bargain.

Negotiations must always be a win-win for both parties. Ensure you are non-confrontational and do not use a language that might lead to misunderstanding and bad blood. Be honest and forthright with your counterpart about your demands, and why they are important to you. Ensure that when you voice your demands, they sound fair, reasonable, and cogent. They must seem to be beneficial to the other party as well.

Having negotiations based on interests rather than positions is known as principled negotiation. It frames negotiations as problems to be solved (together), rather than battles to be won. This is the best way to go about negotiating anything. For example, when you are negotiating your salary with the HR of a prospective company, you might want to factor in industry standards as opposed to driving a hard bargain for the number you think is right. ‘Give some, take some’ is an adage that best sums up this approach.

Hemant Chandran is Authorised Officer at UBS in Pune, India. He completed his MBA at Strathclyde Business School, University of Strathclyde in 2013 

‘Find an overlapping position'

As a commercial skills trainer and coach who has helped thousands of people master the art of negotiation, I’m always amazed how many underestimate the crucial role listening plays in negotiating. Negotiation should be, by its very nature, a two-way conversation that enables you to find common ground or as I definite it ‘communication between two parties to find an overlapping position’.

However, it is only possible to communicate successfully with someone if you draw on your emotional intelligence (EQ) to actively listen to the other person and understand exactly what makes them tick.

All too often, people confuse hearing with listening, when hearing is involuntary whereas listening is a skill. It’s therefore not surprising that habit number five in Steve Covey’s seminal book The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People is ‘seek first to understand, then to be understood’.

Broadly speaking there are three levels of listening:

  • superficial listening: when you pretend to listen to what the other party is saying but are actually thinking about something else entirely
  • selective listening: when you only listen to what you want to hear about 
  • active listening: when your draw on your EQ to listen live in the moment so you can process exactly what the other party is saying.

Master negotiators recognise that active listening is the key to finding that overlapping position with the other party. This requires real concentration and effort. You need to focus on your counterpart’s body language and tone of voice as well of the words they use to gain a thorough understanding of what they are communicating. (Remember that only 7% of what we communicate comes from the words we use.)

‘Hearing is involuntary whereas listening is a skill’

You should be actively listening throughout the negotiation process. However, this is often easier said than done. More often than not, we are so keen to get our own point of view across, that we don’t take the time to understand the other party’s perspective. So, as part of your preparation, try to build on the other party’s ideas and work collaboratively to help you secure a win-win outcome.

A great way to do this is to harness your EQ to listen with empathy. This will enable you to put yourself in the other party’s shoes so that you can understand what truly motivates them and prepare a proposal that addresses their needs. Once you have delivered your proposal, your capacity to listen attentively becomes increasingly important. After all, you can only prepare so much in advance, so it’s vital to be able to listen live in the moment to help you control the negotiating conversation and trade your way to success.

I’m a big believer that practice really does make perfect. According to the 10,000-hour rule, it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become world class in any field. So commit to honing your listening skills on a daily basis – whether it’s asking your boss for a pay rise, agreeing additional resources for a project with a colleague or negotiating a new contract with a client. Remember these so-called soft skills are often the hardest ones to master.  However, by taking the time to actively listen to the other person and communicate effectively, you will soon reap the rewards of stronger relationships and improved negotiation success.

Nicole Soames is CEO of Diadem Performance, a commercial skills training and coaching company, and author of The Negotiation Book. 

‘Commit to honing your listening skills on a daily basis’