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By  Nicholas Wenzel

Friend and Supporter of Rational Games

The best negotiators focus on interests. They listen and ask questions. They seek to understand the other side – its needs, perceptions and wants. Good negotiators know that the interests we share are the glue in the room. They are the essence of what keeps us going, no matter how divergent our positions.  They help us to explore commonalities and find creative solutions to a deadlock.

Certainly a deep insight into the interests of the other side serves as the foundation for wise agreements. But in practice people have a colorful array of often contradicting needs and wants. And the more we understand them, the better we are able to use that information as  leverage in our negotiations. This sort of empathy enables tailer-made proposals, ideas which go to the heart othe interests of our partner. But how to go about it?

As we negotiate, one question hovers firmly above all others: Are the propositions of the other side truly in my interest? To answer this, good negotiators pursue three paths. First, they fully focus on the pivotal role of interests in any negotiation. Secondy, they are skilled at recognizing them and understanding how they are prioritized by the other side. Finally, they explictly speak to them in their negotiation proposals.

1. Interests as powerful drivers

In every negotiation, the players want to reach a desired outcome, as defined by their interests. Thereby we must distinguish beteen two sets of interests: those that are quite visible, and those that are  more hidden.

In a business negotation the more obvious interests might typically mean getting a good deal, negotiating the best price, maintaining a good work relationship with the other side, etc. But even here there are many more interests at play. After all it is people negotiating, with their wide range of very personal needs and desires. These should not be discounted. But what kind of needs are we talking about?

2. The other side always has many layers of interests

The Maslow Pyramid

In 1954, the psychologist Abraham Maslow conducted extensive research on what motivates people. He summarized his findings in a ”pyramid” of needs and desires.

  1. Transcendence: help others realize their potential

  2. Self-Actualization: realize our own potential, self-fulfilment

  3. Aesthetic: symmetry, order, beauty, balance

  4. Esteem: achieve, be competent, gain approval, independence, status

  5. Belonging: love, family, friends, affection

  6. Security: protection, safety, stability

  7. Physical: hunger, thirst, bodily comfort

In any negotiation, you can be sure that both sides will be driven by many of these layered desires. A good negotiator appreciates this, recognizes priorities and skilfully crafts her proposals accordingly.

3. The art of addressing the other’s interests

Let ‘s imagine that you are trying to persuade someone to come and work for your company. How would you go about it? And how would you present your company? You can do so in many ways. Here are three possible pitches for the job:

  1. Talk about how much security this job provides. It is so important that the company will always need someone in this position.

  2. Stress the visibility provided by this job. Because the job is so important, a lot of people will be watching your performance.

  3. Emphasize how rewarding it will be to work in such a prominent job. It offers a unique opportunity to learn how the company really works.

(Quote: Dan and Chip Heath, Made to Stick)

Do you see the difference? In your effort to motivate this person to join the company, these pitches appeal to very different interests. No. 1 appeals to security, no. 2 to esteem and no. 3 to learning. As the pyramid shows, each of us has several layers of interests. Being aware of these, and how they are prioritized on the other side, will allow us to tailor our negotiations to the other person’s needs. So if you understand that the job seeker cares most about learning, it is probably not wise to pitch for security. Pitch the learning curve that would be relevant for her in the job. It is by clearly tailoring your propositions to the person’s most pressing interests, that you will be most likely to come to an agreement.

In summary

Good negotiators appeal to people’s essential interests. And each side has several of these, ranked by priority. The more you are aware of this, the better you can appeal to the needs a person cares most about. By doing so, you demonstrate a key quality  of a great negotiator. That is, to constantly seek to understand your audience’s interests, and repeatedly explore and show how you and your proposition will bring the value other side has been looking for.

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