Strategic Negotiating – Learn to Listen!

Ok, I admit, listening does not come easily to me.  As with so many of us with Type A leaning personalities, getting to the finish line and moving on to the next task tends to win over taking time to hear from all stakeholders in a debate.  However, as a lifelong passionate student of all things related to self-improvement, I think I’m actually finally getting the hang of it!

Thirty years in business managing a staff of more than 300, welcoming thousands of guests each year, working with vendors, landlords and advisors and participating in dozens of community service organizations taught me much about patience…and listening.  Those who had the fun of being put through the paces of one of my new hire interviews know that one of my favorite questions dealt with the applicant’s debating skills.  I always believed that if someone was faced with opposition to a position, idea or strategy, especially one of our managers, that they had better enjoy the art of debate or learn the necessary skills to convincingly participate in discussions where they are attempting to sell their position.

As I have moved into the world of alternative dispute resolution – mediation – I have found myself quite enjoying the challenge of helping parties reach collaborative consensus in managing their differences.  A gentler approach than litigation for both sides, and certainly less expensive, completely confidential so protecting your brand or image from public scrutiny is avoided, mediation offers an expedited road to settling differences.  As a career hospitality professional, I believe that acting as a mediator is more natural to those whose experience in resolving issues tends to draw upon our innate skills – courteous and kind – which can be used to establish a more comfortable environment for the discussions between disputing parties.

So, back to the subject of this post – listening – what are some tips that may help you (and me!) improve our skills to become better negotiators and debaters?

  • Be sure to bring paper and pen with you.  Taking notes shows that you not only respect the speaker’s comments but, your notes will also come in handy later in the negotiations to either remind the parties of what has previously been expressed, allow you to note where you have questions regarding statements made so you can bring them up later, and help you to phrase your own presentation when your turn to speak comes around.  By noting where facts and figures stated earlier in the session differ from what may be said later in negotiations, you gain credibility and power.
  • Be prepared to give your undivided attention when the other party is speaking. No rifling through papers, checking text messages or day-dreaming – your level of attention and giving of yourself to the other party shows interest and engagement and helps to set the tone you expect from the counter-party.
  • Use the time you are listening to also observe body language since much of what is said is often non-verbal.  Sometimes clues to motives, desperation to settle, fear, and if they are being truthful are best read between the lines.
  • When appropriate, offer visible or verbal cues that you are listening.  A simple nod is sometimes all that is needed to allow the narrator to know they are being heard.  By showing respect for your counter-party during mediation you are giving them the sense that you are willing to participate responsibly and fairly in the negotiation.  It is also another helpful tool to set the table for when it’s your turn to speak.
  • Be sure to allow time for a pause after the counter-party appears to have completed their thought.  Often people have the need to fill silence and just might offer one last nugget to seize and use toward resolution.
  • Virtually all negotiations have an element of emotion.  If your counterpart says something that upsets you, remember not to attack the person – stick to the statement.  If you offend the other party personally you are lessening the ability for the two sides to work together toward a reasonable settlement.
  • And, in the same vein, try not to get angry.  Typically when we move into that emotion we shut down and inhibit our ability to listen.  If you need to express your anger it should be stated, but it’s best to hold yourself in check to allow for a continued dialogue and ultimately win-win between the parties.
  • The most important thing to remember is that you simply cannot understand what your counterpart is willing to do to settle the matter unless you listen to what they have to say.  It is difficult to persuade someone to agree to possible solutions if you don’t know what motivates them.  If you have prepared properly, when it is your turn to speak you will be able to weave into your presentation the salient points that the other party has revealed to show where there are opportunities for you to work together.  This puts you in a much greater position of control over the outcome of mediation.

There is a Chinese Proverb that goes something like this, “To listen well, is as powerful a means of influence as to talk well, and is as essential to all true conversation.”  I for one am planning to remember this and apply it whenever possible, either during my own debates and negotiations or when leading a mediation between disputing parties!