One negotiation style that gets a lot of play in movies and novels is the “hard ball” style wherein the negotiator focuses on extracting as much value as possible from the other side. The term win-win has been popularized as a style that leads to optimal agreements for both parties. The win-win style embodies a communication skill that may not be readily apparent; Active Listening.
Most negotiators would agree upon the value of good listening skills. Skillful active listening can calm tensions, break impasses, and get to the information needed to build creative deals. Yet many people overestimate their ability to deploy this key negotiation skill, while also lacking an accurate understanding of the concept of active listening.
What is active listening? Contrary to popular belief, active listening doesn’t mean sitting patiently while your counterpart talks. Nor does it simply mean saying “I understand” or establishing good eye contact. Specifically, active listening is a dynamic process that can be broken down into three broad and different behaviors: paraphrasing, inquiry, and acknowledgment.
Assume the role of an organizational development consultant that provides management and supervisory leadership development training. You respond to a request for proposal (RFP) to an organization. At the initial exploratory meeting with the organization, the representative asserts: “Your proposal doesn’t give us the assurances we need that you can quickly handle all of the staff from our branch locations if we decide to include that group of leaders. Further, your price per head is too high and exceeds our budget. We think you have an excellent product portfolio, but if you can’t work with us, we’re prepared to find and select another vendor that will be more flexible with us.”
Here’s one way that we may be able to respond in this scenario using three (3) characteristics of active listening in this negotiation.
Paraphrase: “It sounds as if you’re satisfied with our portfolio of training modules, overall. But if I understand correctly, you need me to assure you that we can accommodate your branch personnel on short notice if you decide to include that group. You’re also concerned about our proposed per-head price and our willingness to work with you to create an acceptable arrangement. Have I captured your main points?”
Inquire: “You mentioned that you found our proposed price per head to be unacceptable. Help me understand how you came to this conclusion. Let’s also talk about how we might set up a pricing structure that you find more reasonable.”
Acknowledge: “It sounds as if you’re not comfortable with the per-head pricing in our proposal, so much so that you have serious concerns about whether we’ll be able to work together through to completion.”
The key point is that a skillful negotiator orchestrates these aspects of active listening to elicit and draw out the other party’s concerns and feelings, with a view toward asserting their own viewpoint and engaging in joint problem-solving.
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