What do successful negotiators do?


I honed my own negotiation skills on my parents shop floor.

I carried out my first successful negotiation when I was about fifteen years of age.  While I may have started my career in the late 1970’s I have worked all of my life.  My parents had a small grocery shop where I was working from a very early age.  I packed shelves, swept the floors, cleaned the windows, delivered groceries and as I got older got involved with the different sales representatives who came to sell their products to my parents.

Business was always in my blood.  I remember going with my parents to buy a new car and getting involved with the deal.  I challenged the salesman on his price and gave him multiple reasons why the price needed to move.  It did and I felt good about saving my parents money.  How much of my intervention had an impact I will never know?  But that experience did create an appetite within me.  Since then I have been involved in many negotiations over my career and have taught the Art of Negotiation in a number of Business Schools.

When should you negotiate?

We are negotiating all of the time without realising that we are.  It might be around part of our job role, where will we go for dinner or how much we are willing to pay for something.  What do successful negotiators do and what can we learn from them?  Well one of the first things is they know, is when they should negotiate and when they do not need to negotiate.

So, the first question that needs to be answered is, what is a negotiation?

At its simplest, a negotiation is a meeting between two or more individuals or parties with the aim of reaching an agreement of some description.  The reason for negotiating is simply to improve your position.  If you can achieve your objectives by consultation or imposition, then negotiating is probably unnecessary.

What have successful negotiators learned about negotiations from Harvard?

Roger Fisher founded the Program on Negotiation (PON) at Harvard Law School.  He also co-authored the book “Getting to Yes – Negotiating Agreements Without Giving In”, with Willian Ury.  In their book they suggest that every negotiation has seven key elements which are distinguishable but interconnected.  Their presence means you can better understand the dynamics and flow of a negotiation.  By identifying these elements within any negotiation and planning accordingly we can enter into a negotiation both prepared but also with a frame of reference in which to evaluate how we are doing.

So, let’s take a look at the successful negotiators seven elements and see how we can integrate them into a game plan for our next negotiation.


  1. Relationships

It’s about building the relationship so that any issues that arise can be addressed.

  • Always separate any people issues from substantive issues
  • Plan and prepare to build and maintain good working relationships
  • Be respectful, trustworthy, and always bring an unconditional constructive approach
  1. Interests

It’s about really understanding what the other party wants and why they want it.

  • Ask, what does the other party really want? It might not be what they say they want.  Work with the other parties to ensure that they identify and articulate the interests, concerns, and needs they have
  • Be comfortable reflecting for yourselves but probing the other party to identify unarticulated or underlying interests.
  • Identify and share common interests as a basis to develop options. 
  1. Communications

Negotiations are about communication between multiple parties

  • Active listening– to overcome the tendency to interfere with good listening
  • They acknowledging what has been said and felt – They demonstrate that they have both heard and understood the other party
  • As Stephen Covey says they listen to understand and when they speak it is to be understood
  • Successful negotiators always articulate what the crucial issues for you them?
  • They think through the timing and impact of what they wish to say? They are clear and concise.
  • Successful negotiators gather knowledge and learn about the other parties Interests
  1. Options
  • They identify possible agreements. Or parts of an agreement
  • Successful negotiators create options to meet the interests of both parties.
  • They ensure when designing options, they are transparently to meet the other parties’ interests.
  • They will find ways to maximize joint gains for both parties
  1. BATNA (Harvard acronym for Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement)
  • Successful negotiators develop an initial BATNA but constantly update it as they gather more knowledge and information throughout the negotiation.
    • They ask themselves the question, what will I do if I do not get an agreement?
    • They decide if they need to negotiate, or if they can satisfactorily meet their interests in other ways?
    • They identify and articulate their best/doable alternatives to a negotiated agreement.
    • They fully understand the implication, consequences, risks, and costs of both the other parties and their own BATNA.
    • They identify the best and worst alternatives open to the other side.
    • They constantly ask themselves how can we make their BATNA worse for them? (i.e. keep them at the table)
  1. Legitimacy
  • They identify what criteria will they use to persuade the other party that hey are not being ripped off?
  • Successful negotiators ensure that fairness is a governing consideration.
  • Use external criteria and objective standards as a basis to legitimize your preferred options and as a shield against unreasonable proposals from the other side.
  1. Commitment

Ensuring all parties are here to come to an agreement.

  • Get commitments at the end not the beginning.
  • Identify all of the implementation issues to be included in the agreement and ensure that there are not any post agreement surprises.
  • Plan the timeframe and steps to implement the agreement.


In conclusion, what do successful negotiators do?

While I did not realise what I was doing in my father’s shop I was doing some of the things that the Harvard project has identified.  Make the conscious decision to negotiate or identity an alternative way of reaching your goal or goals.  If entering into a negotiation, take time to plan for the negotiation, and know what a good deal is.  Make sure that the deal agreed will meet your interests, and that it is better than the alternative solution (BATNA) that you have identified, in a way that is both doable and fair for both parties.