June 7

Contract Negotiation Strategies: The Science of Getting What You Deserve

Contract negotiation - the very idea can send chills down the spine of even the most hardened professional. Images of high-stakes poker games and back-alley deal-making can fill the mind. But, as the renowned negotiation expert, Christopher Voss would say, a successful contract negotiation strategy is more akin to navigating a labyrinth than engaging in a head-on battle. It's about understanding and influencing human behavior to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes.

Today is Part I of a two-part series where I'm walking you through my ultimate guide to successful contract negotiation strategies. The same ones I've trusted over and over to help me create win-win contracts with my own clients. In this post, I'll do my best to decode the art and science of negotiation for you by diving deep into the psychology, strategies, and negotiation frameworks that are at the heart of any successful negotiation. Then in Part II, I'll take you on a journey through the process of making an offer, bargaining, and closing the deal. 

Since today's post is a tad on the longer side, feel free to use the table of contents below to jump to the most interesting sections first. 

Why Most Negotiations Fail

I'll be honest. Most people aren't great negotiators because they've often never had anyone teach them the art and science of negotiations. As such, they default to Positional Bargaining. Positional Bargaining is one of the oldest and most widely recognized negotiating frameworks. Unfortunately, it's one of the least effective (in my opinion) but most utilized frameworks. 

Essentially, it's a tit-for-tat strategy, where each party takes a fixed position and subsequently bargains over these stances. One party makes their "first offer" and the parties then proceed to ask for and offer concessions to inch towards a middle ground. Sound vaguely familiar???

Unfortunately, this method often leads to damaged relationships as it tends to foster a win-lose mentality. More importantly, though, the focus on positions rather than creating a deal based on maximizing each party's underlying interests can often lead to suboptimal outcomes.

Successful Negotiations Aren't a Battle 

Successful negotiations are a dance. Two partners moving in rhythm, adjusting to one another, creating something beautiful together. The essence of negotiation isn't combat; it's cooperation. When two negotiators see one another as accomplices instead of adversaries, truly great outcomes can be achieved — outcomes neither party could envision without the other party actively participating in the process. 

But most importantly, great negotiators realize a little empathy goes a long way; understanding your partner’s needs and goals helps foster a sense of trust. Trust builds bridges to optimized outcomes for both parties. Top that with clear and effective communication, and you have the recipe for a great tango.

Preparing For a Successful Negotiation

To paraphrase Sun Tzu, every battle is won or lost before it is ever fought. And while I don't want you to approach your negotiations as a battle, preparation, and planning are vital for effective negotiation. Planning involves understanding your interests as well as those of the other party, knowing your BATNA— best alternative to a negotiated agreement — and having a clear strategy for how to approach the negotiation.

During this planning stage, it's essential to set your objectives, identify potential obstacles, and develop strategies to overcome them. You should also prepare for different scenarios that might occur during the negotiation and think about how you'll handle them. The bottom line: the better prepared you are, the more confident and effective you'll appear during the actual negotiation.

  • Set your objectives: getting a contract isn't your objective. There are many reasons a person or company enters into a contract. Think long and hard about your primary reason for wanting to engage with the other party or strike a deal. 
  • Define the other party's objectives: attempt to determine what you think the other party's primary objectives are in the negotiation. WARNING: as you enter more complex, multi-party negotiations, you'll need to do this step for EACH person involved with the negotiation. Often, conflicting objectives will exist and you'll have to craft a pathway through all of them. 
  • Define outside forces: negotiations don't happen in a vacuum. Make note of any outside forces (economic, political, familial, or corporate) that may influence how someone approaches a negotiation or responds once they're an active participant. 
  • Identify potential obstacles: create a list of issues that could trip up or end the negotiation prematurely. Be very open-minded when building your list. Don't just look at your issues or the other person's issues, but also those outside forces that could quickly reset the negotiating table. 
  • Identify your BATNA: your Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement is the most powerful negotiating tactic you're likely not using today. Before you begin any negotiation, determine three outcomes. Your ideal outcome, the expected outcome, and the least beneficial outcome you could happily agree to without feeling like you've lost a battle. 

Applying Negotiation Frameworks: An In-depth Review of Your Options

Negotiations can be as straightforward or as convoluted as the parties involved make it. Luckily numerous theorists and practitioners have devised a variety of negotiation frameworks to help you structure and comprehend the actions of your negotiation partner. I've already touched on Positional Bargaining, so below I'll touch on five additional frameworks you may find helpful. 

The Harvard Method (Principled Negotiation) was developed by Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Harvard Negotiation Project. In their landmark book "Getting to Yes" they introduced the idea of Principled Negotiation, which places the focus on interests rather than positions, seeks mutually beneficial solutions, uses objective criteria for decision-making, and separates the people from the problem.

  • Advantages: Principled Negotiation brings a spirit of collaboration to the negotiating table by focusing on interests rather than positions. It also encourages creative problem-solving and often leads to win-win outcomes where both parties' key needs are addressed. This approach also promotes fairness and transparency by advocating for the use of objective criteria to resolve differences.
  • Disadvantages: However, Principled Negotiation is not without its challenges. Mainly, it assumes both parties are interested in a cooperative approach, which may not always be the case. Thus in scenarios with significant power imbalances, where the stronger party may exploit the imbalance, the approach may fail to achieve its goals.

The Mutual Gains Approach was developed by the Consensus Building Institute as a further evolution of the Harvard Method, placing even greater emphasis on stakeholder involvement, consensus-building, and long-term sustainability.

  • Advantages: This approach has shown great success in complex negotiations involving multiple stakeholders. By promoting extensive stakeholder involvement, the Mutual Gains Approach ensures that all parties feel heard and involved, which increases the likelihood of buy-in and long-term commitment to the negotiated agreement. 
  • Disadvantages: On the flip side, the time and effort required for a successful application of the Mutual Gains Approach can be significant. Engaging all stakeholders, building consensus, and maintaining an ongoing dialogue can be resource-intensive. And as we all have experienced, convincing a large group of stakeholders to agree on a lunch order can be challenging, much less a full-blown agreement. Thus, the approach may produce watered-down agreements that fail to satisfy anyone fully.

The ZOPA Framework or Zone of Possible Agreement, is a concept that applies to many negotiation techniques but is particularly significant when negotiating a contract for services. ZOPA believes there's a range in which agreement is possible – specifically the range between the minimum that one party is willing to accept and the maximum that the other is willing to offer. It's the ven diagram of the negotiation framework world 😊.

  • Advantages: The ZOPA framework helps both parties quickly gauge the feasibility of an agreement from an early stage thereby creating efficient negotiations. This clear, systematic approach allows parties to determine if there is a zone where their interests overlap and where a potential agreement could be formed, but only if both parties are transparent regarding their minimum and maximum.
  • Disadvantages: While the ZOPA framework offers a structured approach to negotiating, it assumes that both parties have a clear understanding of their respective bottom lines and can estimate those of the other party. This might not always be the case, especially in more complex negotiations where interests are multi-dimensional. Additionally,  by limiting discussions to the identified ZOPA, parties may fail to explore other creative solutions that could expand the ZOPA in unanticipated ways, leading to suboptimal outcomes.

The MESO Framework or Multiple Equivalent Simultaneous Offers, is a strategy where a negotiator presents several offers at once, all of which they consider equally acceptable. By offering options instead of a single proposition, negotiators can learn more about the other party’s preferences and priorities, which can be useful in finding mutually beneficial agreements. I probably use this approach 90% of the time when crafting a new client proposal. In fact, it's the underpinning of my BSGC Pricing Proposal that I teach in our Painless Prospecting Master Class

  • Advantages: MESO is an effective tool for understanding the other party's preferences and opening up the conversation for further negotiations without having to lock yourself into any one position or offer. It also signals flexibility and a willingness to collaborate, positioning you in the seat alongside versus across the table from your negotiation dance partner. Moreover, the strategy can reduce the likelihood of rejection or deadlock since it gives the other party a sense of choice and control.
  • Disadvantages: On the downside, the MESO strategy requires considerable preparation to develop multiple, equally acceptable offers. Trust me, I know of which I type. I have easily spent hundreds of hours building my BSGC Proposal Builder, and it's still not 100% complete. There's also a risk that the other party might see the multiple offers as a sign of uncertainty or lack of conviction, which could potentially weaken your position. In addition, there's a risk that the other party might cherry-pick the best parts of each offer, creating expectations that are difficult to meet, which is why the preparation portion of this approach is so important.

The Win-Win Framework is built on the belief that negotiation is not a zero-sum game but an opportunity for both parties to gain something of value. As such, the approach is extremely positive because it encourages a perspective emphasizing collaboration, creativity, and mutual respect.

  • Advantages: By shifting the focus away from winning and losing, this approach encourages more open communication and often leads to extremely creative problem-solving that produces far more beneficial outcomes for both parties. Additionally, because this approach is cooperative vs combative, it aids in preserving and improving the relationship between the negotiating parties, which can be crucial in supporting long-term business relationships.
  • Disadvantages: The downside is that only works when both parties adopt a cooperative mindset. In scenarios where the other party is solely focused on their gains, the Win-Win Framework is a non-starter. Additionally, if either party hasn't successfully identified their BATNA, their commitment to the pursuit of a win-win solution can lead to compromises that ultimately produce a less-than-desirable deal.

The most important point here is that negotiation frameworks provide valuable guideposts to navigate the world of negotiations. By understanding the principles, strengths, and limitations of these frameworks, you can adapt your approach to different situations, increasing your effectiveness and, ultimately, your success in reaching beneficial agreements.

The Power of Connection: Why Building Relationships Trumps Winning Deals

Remember, negotiation is not just about winning one deal; it's about building a relationship that can win all of the deals. In business, relationships are a valuable asset. Parties who have successfully negotiated in the past are more likely to do so again, benefiting both in the process. 

Always separate the people from the problem. By focusing on the issues and not the personalities or people behind the issues, you can remove the emotions that often cloud successful negotiations. It also helps if you focus on interests vs positions. Interests are what the party really wants or needs. Positions are their opening offer or demand. Unsuccessful negotiators often wrongly assume the two are one and the same when more often than not, they are quite different. 

In the dance of negotiation, every step, every turn, every move matters. It's about strategy, empathy, intuition, and adaptability. And while the dance may be complex, if you will keep your eye on the prize (the relationship) and accept that it's better to walk away from a bad deal and keep a great relationship than force a bad position just to get the win, you'll do just fine.

As Henry Ford once said, "Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently." So, if a negotiation doesn't go your way, don't be disheartened. Instead, you can see the experience as a chance to glean insights and use them to sharpen your skills for future negotiations.

Words Matter: The Importance of Clear Communication

Clear and effective communication is essential to any successful contract negotiation strategy. Over the years I've found a couple of simple rules that consistently produce better outcomes in all of my negotiations. 

  • Pronouns are not your friend. This may sound stupid, but honestly, they lead to more miscommunications than you'll ever realize—until you stop using them. It may feel cumbersome and odd, but eliminate them from your negotiation vocabulary and do your best to force your negotiation dance partner to do the same. 
  • Never assume you understand your partner's language. If your negotiation partner says something that you're not 100% sure you completely and clearly understand, use Mirroring and Labeling to ensure clarity in communication. Mirroring involves repeating the last few words or the main idea of your counterpart's statement, encouraging them to elaborate and reveal more about their position. Labeling, on the other hand, involves acknowledging and verbalizing the other party's feelings. This can help to head off potential misunderstandings and guide the conversation toward a mutually beneficial outcome.
  • Listen to understand not argue. Honestly, this is probably the biggest hurdle to good communication. You can't listen and think at the same time. But far too often, especially if a negotiation is becoming heated, you hear the first few words of the person's point and immediately begin formulating your argument. Don't do that! Instead, force yourself to listen actively. Then make ample use of open-ended questions and reflective questioning to hear the unspoken need, challenge, or request that is really driving the statement
  • Hear the nonverbal communications. Body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice can convey information beyond what is spoken. Be mindful of these nonverbal cues both in yourself and your partner. They may signal comfort, distress, or any range of emotions that could provide insights into the other party's mindset.

The Role of Emotions in Contract Negotiations

While we like to think of negotiations as purely rational processes, it's important to recognize the crucial role that emotions play. The way we feel can significantly impact our decision-making process, perceptions, and interactions during negotiations. Recognizing, managing, and using emotions constructively is a powerful negotiation tool.

Emotional Intelligence, defined as the ability to recognize and manage both our emotions and those of others, is an invaluable skill for any successful negotiator. EI helps you remain calm under pressure, resolve conflicts amicably, and make decisions that lead to mutually beneficial outcomes. 

Successful negotiators are very self-aware. They know their strengths, weaknesses, and most importantly, hot buttons! This helps them stay in control and avoid impulsive reactions to triggers. They also demonstrate empathy by showing that they understand the emotions, needs, and concerns of the other party. By validating their negotiation partner's emotions they build trust and create an environment of collaboration. This allows them to avoid the emotional traps too many of us fall into during personally important negotiations.

Never forget that when you negotiate with a person, you're negotiating with their past, present, and future. Everything that has ever happened to them, is happening to them right now, or they think/fear may happen to them in the future—especially as it relates to the outcome of the negotiation— drives their action and reaction to the words you say, ideas you argue for, the tone you speak in, arguments you make and positions you take. 

The Influence of Cultural Factors in Contract Negotiations

Negotiation is not a one-size-fits-all process. Cultural factors can significantly impact how negotiations unfold. Different cultures have unique communication styles, norms, and expectations that influence the negotiation dynamic. And just because you're negotiating with someone born in your same country, state, or even city, that doesn't mean you're culturally aligned.  

It's crucial to be aware of and sensitive to cultural differences when negotiating across borders or with individuals from diverse backgrounds. Understanding cultural nuances can help you navigate potential misunderstandings, adapt your approach, and build rapport with your negotiation partner. 

Take the time to research and learn about your partner's cultural customs, values, and communication styles to give yourself a valuable edge in negotiations—especially contract negotiations. Not only does it show respect for their culture it facilitates better communication and understanding, ultimately leading to more fruitful negotiations.

Understanding Cognitive Biases in Business Negotiations

Remember, I said earlier that when you negotiate with someone, you're negotiating with their yesterday, today, and tomorrow. One of the factors I was referring to is a person's built-in cognitive biases—the systematic errors in thinking that affect the decisions and judgments they make. Some of these biases can have a significant impact on negotiation processes and outcomes. Here are a few that are particularly relevant: 

  • Anchoring Bias: This is the tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information (the "anchor") when making decisions. In negotiations, the first offer often serves as an anchor that can influence how parties perceive subsequent offers. We'll talk more about that in part II of this series because used properly, anchors can help you achieve far better outcomes. Misused and they can sabotage an otherwise fruitful negotiation.  
  • Confirmation Bias: This is the tendency to pay more attention to information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs and to ignore information that contradicts them. In negotiations, confirmation bias can lead us to misinterpret or dismiss valid points made by the other party, hindering progress toward an agreement.
  • Overconfidence Bias: This bias leads us to overestimate the accuracy of our forecasts or the feasibility of our goals. Personally, I believe this bias breaks down more negotiations than any of the other variables that can torpedo a successful negotiation because it makes you less willing to make necessary and often reasonable concessions or consider the other party's perspectives.

The Art of Persuasion in Contract Negotiations

There's an art to persuasion in negotiation. It's about more than just presenting a compelling case; it's also about connecting with the other party on an emotional level while addressing their concerns and objectives. Persuasive negotiators focus on establishing credibility, building a logical case, understanding the other party's needs and perspectives, and communicating clearly and confidently.  

  • Credibility is the foundation of persuasion: Research suggests that individuals are more likely to be persuaded by someone they trust and perceive as competent. Demonstrate your expertise, be transparent and honest, find common ground, and emphasize shared values and goals. 
  • Craft a compelling and logical case: Back your claims with solid evidence, statistics, and facts. But don't just sound like professor bozo, package your data inside compelling narratives and anecdotes, both of which are proven persuasion tools. 
  • Demonstrate how your position addresses their needs: As you move through the negotiation, pay close attention to your negotiation partner's statements, concerns and preferences to uncover pain points or areas where your proposal delivers mutual benefits. Research shows that framing negotiations as win-win scenarios enhances persuasiveness and promotes cooperation. 🤦‍♂️ duh! 
  • Master persuasive communications techniques: Research suggests that persuasive language, such as action-oriented words and positive framing, can significantly influence decision-making. As you negotiate, maintain eye contact, use open and confident body language, and feel free to speak with your hands! The right gesture can reinforce your message in ways spoken words can't. 

Leveraging Technology in Modern Negotiations

In the digital era, technology has become an integral part of negotiations, reshaping the way we conduct business. Among the technological advancements, virtual meetings have emerged as a game-changer. With just a click of a button, you can engage in face-to-face negotiations with counterparts from around the world, opening up a world of possibilities for businesses of all sizes. However, to effectively navigate virtual negotiations, it's crucial to adapt your negotiation strategies to the unique dynamics of the online environment.

  • Establish a Professional Virtual Presence: Treat virtual negotiations with the same level of professionalism as in-person meetings. Dress appropriately, maintain eye contact, and ensure a clutter-free and well-lit environment that exudes competence and credibility. 
  • Leverage Visual Cues and Body Language: While virtual meetings lack physical proximity, visual cues, and body language remain essential in understanding and conveying messages effectively. Pay attention to your own non-verbal communication and be attentive to subtle cues from the other party, such as facial expressions and gestures.
  • Optimize Audio Quality: It's hard to negotiate with a person when you can't hear them. Make sure you have a solid internet connection, use high-quality microphones, and try to minimize background noise as much as possible. 
  • Utilize Screen-Sharing and Presentation Tools: Leverage the online meeting room's screen-sharing capabilities to share documents, slides, or visuals that support your negotiation points, reinforce your arguments, and facilitate understanding. Better yet, co-author edits to the contract you're negotiating and use commenting tools to leave contextual information for non-attendees to read as they consider the edits you and your negotiating partner have created. 
  • Never forget what you can't see. The second screen is always right there, just outside of the camera's view. But make no mistake, your negotiating partner is likely using it to conduct real-time research, run "what if" scenarios, or possibly engage in conversations with important stakeholders that can influence the outcome of the negotiation. (reread second bullet point 😬).

The Science of Getting What You Deserve From Every Negotiation 

I know that was a lot, but hopefully, it has helped you decode the art and science of negotiation. If you only take away one thing from this post, remember that successful contract negotiations aren't about winning or getting your way. Quite the opposite. If either party leaves the negotiation feeling like they've won or lost, the resulting deal creates an unbalanced relationship moving forward. Eventually, that imbalance will create resentment or even bigger issues. So don't try to win, try to create the best deal possible for ALL parties involved. 

Speaking of making a deal, if you're a first-time reader and liked this piece, why not consider subscribing so we can stay in touch? Of course, you can cancel the contract at any time if you don't like what we send 😉.  Till next time. 

This post was originally published on Painless Prospecting, the weekly sales and marketing blog created by the fine folks at Converse Digital. If you want to learn how to create, engage in, and convert conversations into new clients and customers, give them a call

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