Four Step Negotiation

The Management Pocketbooks Pocket Correspondence Course

This is part of an extended management course. You can dip into it, or follow the course from the start. If you do that, you may want a course notebook, for the exercises and any notes you want to make.


We all have to negotiate; whether formally, arranging rotas, or informally, looking for a little extra help. In some cultures, it is more than a way of life, it is a ritual to be savoured. Everyone is familiar with its ploys and gambits, and is comfortable with the give and take, the spirited competition, and the feigned offence. Not negotiating is what gives real offence.

In other places, negotiation can feel alien: it feels more like an argument. Consequently, many managers feel uncomfortable with the idea of negotiating.

So, how can you negotiate well, and feel confident at the same time?

Negotiating is a learnable process. There are four basic steps, that you can practise and carry out, to get a result every time. It may not always be the result you hoped for at the outset: that’s not the goal of negotiating. There are, after all, two (or more) parties to please.

Negotiation is a process of searching for an agreement that satisfies all parties

So, let’s look at the process; it has four steps.

1. Preparation

The secret of success lies in going into the formal ‘let’s negotiate’ part fully prepared. This can give you an immediate edge but, realistically, will simply prevent you being at a disadvantage from the start. Its real importance is two-fold: to boost your confidence and to equip you to recognise and secure the best outcome available… or to know when to walk away. Perhaps the simplest useful advice is in the words of Kenny Rogers:

You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.
You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table.
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.

So, what to prepare?

  1. Know what you want, and what your option would be if you failed to reach agreement. Known as your BATNA or ‘Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement’, this tells you when to walk away. It forms your bottom line.
  2. You need to inventory all the variables in your negotiation: what you can trade, offer, concede, request, and tweak, in terms of money, goods, services, or relationships. This will give you your manoeuvring space.
  3. Find out about the other party and do your best to anticipate what they need, want and don’t want and, as a result, some likely scenarios. Play them out.
  4. Assemble a file of every relevant fact or figure so you have them to hand. Ideally, learn it all – the impact of that on your counter-party can be stunning. If not, at least be familiar with it all, so you can quickly find what you need.

2. Opening

Your first priority is to make a positive first impression. Dress right, enter confidently, and get your papers out to reveal an orderly file, smart notebook and classy pen. Show you are confident and mean business.

A few minutes of rapport-building banter recognises that negotiation is a human activity. It’s harder to be hard with someone you have rapport with, so soften up the other side. Next, establish any ground rules – above all, does the person in the room have the authority to seal the deal? If not, you will never want to make your best offer to them.

3. Bargaining

Once the give and take of the negotiation is underway, the secret is to listen hard, never respond immediately, and not to be defensive. Always move one step towards where you think agreement lies, either accepting a concession, making one, requesting one, or spelling out the next step. Anything else shows you to be focused on the wrong thing. The right thing is the big picture: progress towards an agreement that satisfies all parties.

Let any raising of emotional temperature, defensive behaviour or outrage come from the other side of the table. You will look wiser, more confident and more powerful. This is why we prepare.

4. Closing

Eventually, you will either reach a point of agreement where both of you are happy, or you will reach a point where one of you recognises that no such agreement is possible and offers to walk away – or storms out; but don’t ever let that be you.

This is where inexperienced negotiators stumble. They fear that saying they are happy and checking that the other party is too, will break the magic spell. The opposite is true: failing to declare this point will mean the magic will wear off. So go for a close. The simplest and safest approach is a trial close:

“I think we are at a point where we can both agree? Is that how you see it?”

If you get the right signals, express your pleasure and move straight into the formalities of finalising the detail: handshakes, drafting, signatures and logistics. Never, ever re-visit any of the terms. You have a deal and there is no way it can get better, so the only thing that will happen is that it gets worse. Stop.

Can it be that simple?

Yes and no. Yes, this simple process works and is the basis of all negotiation. No, because every negotiation will be different and there is one fundamental characteristic of all negotiations that militates against simplicity: they are a human endeavour. But as such, if well prepared, you are in the same position as the other party. You are a human; so are they.

Further Reading

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