Arguing Politely: How to Get the Best Out of Your Negotiation Partner
I watched a political debate recently and felt drained by the experience. Six educated, grownups were reduced to squabbling children over an issue that has polarised the nation. They were speaking over each other, interrupting, arrogantly enforcing their view and asking questions that had been framed in a way to reveal the other as a stupid.
This post is about using politeness, respect and empathy as the cornerstone of your negotiation skills. It’s also a reminder that negotiation is a discourse between parties with different interests and positions, the aim of which is to come to a mutually agreeable solution. If you can’t treat the other side with respect, how can you expect to achieve anything of the sort?
This principle will help you negotiate multi-million-dollar deals and it will also help you resolve disputes with a neighbour, partner, friend or child. It forms the basis of our interactions but sadly, it gets easily lost in the heat of our emotions.
What is Politeness?
In a negotiation context, politeness has a few elements to it:
- Greeting somebody with respect and introducing yourself courteously;
- Using language which is appropriate to the setting e.g. saying thank you, please, using clean and professional language;
- Using tact and carefully phrasing your agreement or disagreement in such way that the other does not feel offended;
- Acknowledging the other person and allowing their opinions and views without interrupting them, undermining them or humiliating them;
- Being humble and winning or losing gracefully;
- Using empathy and respecting boundaries such as confidentiality;
- Understanding and adopting body language which is non-threatening or aggressive.
Why is this important?
I often correspond with lawyers who are poorly trained in communication. They believe mistakenly, that dominating, aggressive language will make the other party yield. It usually doesn’t work. Any negotiator who attempts this looks immature, unprofessional and insulting. This lessens the chance of cooperation and can be disastrous if the other party walks away. Even dressing up an offer as “final” can appear arrogant if the timing of it is wrong (usually, a first offer!)
Politeness is good for your image, your reputation and it can pave the way to a future relationship. This is extremely important if you may need this person after the negotiation or you both work within the same industry. You never know when you might need a favour!
Polite negotiators also appear more professional and are more persuasive. In his brilliant book, The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini cites being “nice” as a highly effective tool in influencing somebody to do something. Salespeople employ this technique regularly. They might stop you in the street with a smile, a friendly greeting or a compliment. I certainly have been sucked in by a cheery salesperson and strangely, find it hard to say no, even knowing that this is a technique. I am sure you have too!
If you are reading this, you probably know the basics of politeness. However, in conflictual situations, your emotions might take over. This is normal and natural but here are a few techniques to help you whilst negotiating.
- Preparation is key. Know your arguments, anticipate responses and figure out what you will and won’t disclose to the other party.
- What, in the negotiation or your arguments are your weak points? Think about this before and work out what you will say if the other party brings them up. Don’t be afraid to say something like, “I appreciate your curiosity but I don’t have that information available to me at the moment.”
- Always remember the basics of politeness: no insults, no prejudice, no interruptions, please/ thank you and appropriately friendly body language. Try not to raise your voice or use aggressive, obnoxious or arrogant language. You should also be aware of your tone.
- If you feel yourself getting angry or frustrated (or in any other way, emotionally overwhelmed), take a break. I am often aware of my opponent’s emotional reaction and if I see that it’s getting in the way of constructive communication, I’ll ask for a break or I’ll request to pause discussions so that we can summarise or take stock of the discussion so far.
- Be assertive. That’s totally different to being aggressive and will ensure that you express your needs and interests constructively, without being walked over by the other side.
- Mind your questions. The intention is to gain greater understanding and to try to grasp what is important to the other party in terms of a resolution. It’s not a cross-examination or a way of poking at the wounds of the other person.
You can never be sure what will happen during any argument, negotiation or mediation but you can think about how you will deal with difficult points. Being respectful about the other party’s view will ensure that you create the best conditions to negotiate in and you minimise conflict.
This doesn’t just apply to negotiation, it applies to the discussions you have with your partner, friends or relatives and hopefully, our politicians might learn something from this blog post too.