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How to Give Negotiation Advice

Consensus Building Approach by Larry Susskind

I was asked to comment on a series of presentations being made by students in a class at Harvard Law School. Their assignment was to generate advice to the head of one of the major sports leagues in America facing a tricky international problem. The student team with the best presentation was going to have a chance to offer their ideas to the Commissioner. I watched as the student teams talked through elaborate power point presentations loaded with detail and elegant visual gimmicks. That’s when it struck me that we are not developing or sharing with our students a very clear idea about how to give negotiation advice.

Having been in the same situation (of giving negotiation advice) many times, I tried to step back and summarize what I think I know, especially in light of how my advice has been received and when, in retrospect, it has proven useful. First, negotiation advice needs to be short and sweet. When the presentation gets too complicated, the whole message just washes over the recipient. Anything more than a handful of power point slides (if you use them at all!), is too many. I would suggest starting with a very short statement of the negotiator’s problem as you understand it and the gist of your advice in just a few sentences. I would look right in the recipients eye so they are convinced that (1) you understand the problem and the pressures they are facing; (2) you empathize, and you’ve thought long and hard about what you are going to say; and (3) you have confidence in what I’m suggesting. The student teams I watched divided up their presentations so that each member of the team had some air time. Don’t do that. It is hard enough establishing personal contact with the advice recipient.

Second, do not lecture them about the theory behind your prescriptive advice. How I reached my conclusions is my business. If they are asking me for my advice, they don’t need to hear everything I’ve thought about and everything I know, just my conclusions. Negotiation advisors who are not confident about the advice they are giving seem to feel compelled to share everything they know with the people they are advising. In my experience, that just makes the recipient uneasy.

Third, stop along the way and make sure that the recipient understands each of your key points. When the recipient get’s stuck on something I’ve said — if they don’t understand it, or it doesn’t sound right to them — they stop listening. So, it’s better to break what I’m going to say into a few short pieces, and check to be certain they’ve understand each point before I go on.

Fourth, it is OK to offer contingent advice if there are major uncertainties or assumptions which, if handled differently, would lead to very different suggestions. While I’m trying to keep my suggestions as compact and simple as possible, it is, in my experience, appropriate to say: "If X turns out to be true, as I think it will, then my advice to you is this. However, if Y happens instead, then my advice would change in the following way." I wouldn’t do too much of this, but one or two contingencies will add to, rather than subtract from, your credibility as a negotiation advisor.

Finally, a diagram can be useful, but elaborate power point presentations and conceptual schemas are a distraction. Diagrams summarizing prescriptive advice need to be anchored to real events, dates or steps of some kind that make it clear the order in which things will need to be done. Elaborate conceptual diagrams, spelling out theoretical ideas or summarizing various schools of thought, should be avoided at all costs. Someone seeking negotiation advice wants to know what they need to do. That’s it. The negotiation advisor needs to be ready with short explanations of "why," if asked to justify a particular move. But, these should be held in reserve and offered only when requested. And, the "why" answer should always explain the dynamics involved, not the inspiration for the suggestion. Why answers are not like footnotes! They should expose an additional layer of understanding, not cite a source. So, for example, a suggestion like, "Don’t share all the information you have on that subject until you know whether you can trust the other side," should be followed with, if asked why, "Because they could use that information to "anchor" in the Zone of Possible Agreement at a point that is best for them and worst for you."

I really worry about the increasing use of power point presentations in all kinds of advice-giving situations. I think it is a mistake. It puts a barrier between the advice-giver and the recipient. Rapport is everything, and power point presentations, especially those with glitzy special effects, get in the way of personal connections. I don’t mind a one page handout (that the recipient can annotate as they listen), but it should not be filled with dense text. Just a few bullet points will do.

How negotiation advice is offered is as important as the substance of the advice. If negotiation advice is offered in the wrong way, it is useless.


Larry Susskind

Lawrence Susskind was born in New York City in 1947. He graduated from Columbia University in 1968 with a B.A. in English Literature and Sociology. He received his Masters of City Planning from MIT in 1970 and his Ph.D. in Urban Planning from MIT in 1973.  Professor Susskind joined the… MORE >

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