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What Makes a Great Negotiator

According to Harvard Business School Professor Michael Watkins’ new book Breakthrough International Negotiations truly great negotiators operate on seven basic principles.

Principle 1: Great negotiators shape the structure of their situations

Great negotiators never get mired down reacting to counterparts’ moves. Instead, they work to mold the basic structure of the negotiation by involving the right people, controlling the issue agenda, creating linkages that bolster their bargaining power, and channeling the flow of the process through time.

Principle 2: Great negotiators organize to learn

Great negotiators diagnose the essential features of the situation, familiarize themselves with its history and context, and probe the backgrounds and reputations of their counterparts. Understanding the limits of public and privately-gained knowledge prior to the bargaining session, great negotiators continue learning at the negotiation table — carefully gauging reactions and responses while testing hypotheses by asking diagnostic questions and putting offers on the table.

Principle 3: Great negotiators are masters of process design

Great negotiators are cognizant of the potential benefits and costs of setting up a secret channel and understand that details as small as the timing of a meeting or the shape of the negotiating table can make a difference. They know that a bad process—one perceived as unfair, illegitimate, or simply confusing—can create unnecessary and often intractable barriers to agreement.

Principle 4: Great negotiators foster agreement when possible but employ force when necessary

Great negotiators understand the delicate interplay between negotiation and coercive power and make skilled use of explicit and implicit threats. They also recognize the need for threats to be credible, because the cost of using force can be very high. Great negotiators also recognize that their counterparts will view any agreement achieved by means of coercive power as illegitimate and feel free to violate its terms in the absence of continuously applied coercive power. They also understand that backing weak players into a corner triggers resistance and escalation.

Principle 5: Great negotiators anticipate and manage conflict

Great negotiators mediate their own disputes. They are skilled at diagnosing potential sources of conflict. They recognize the potential for escalation in zero-sum thinking, mutual perceptions of vulnerability, and a history of distrust or injury that has transformed perceptions. They are also equipped to craft strategies to overcome these barriers, by reframing issues or setting up confidence-building mechanisms. Great negotiators are skilled at developing trust backed by a seriousness of purpose and unwavering adherence to the principles they must protect.

Principle 6: Great negotiators build momentum toward agreement

Great negotiators channel the flow and pace of the process — developing attractive visions of a desirable future; proposing a formula or framework or face-saving compromise; and, erecting barriers to backsliding that impel the process forward.

Principle 7: Great negotiators lead from the middle

Great negotiators work internally to shape their mandates and negotiating instructions, and to sell the resulting agreements to constituents. At the same time, they build credibility and productive working relationships externally while advancing the interests of their sides. Great negotiators pay close attention to how the other side makes decisions, and use their insights to tailor their own moves. They even help their counterparts sell agreements.

Negotiators who participate in shaping their mandates have a clear vision of what they want to achieve, and work to shape internal and external perceptions to maximize their ability to advance their sides’ interests—and their own.


Victoria Pynchon

Attorney-mediator Victoria Pynchon is a panelist with ADR Services, Inc. Ms. Pynchon was awarded her LL.M Degree in Dispute Resolution from the Straus Institute in May of 2006, after 25 years of complex commercial litigation practice, with sub-specialties in intellectual property, securities fraud, antitrust, insurance coverage, consumer class actions and all… MORE >

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