|Power Negotiators Understand the Importance of
Henry Kissinger was once asked if he already knew what the Soviets would propose at
an upcoming summit meeting. He said, "Oh, absolutely-no question about it. It would be
absolutely disastrous for us to go into a negotiation not knowing in advance what the other side
was going to propose."
Can you imagine the cost of getting that kind of information? The budget of the C.I.A.
is top secret, but experts think it is almost $4 billion a year, even now that the Cold War is over.
So, governments think it's important enough to spend that kind of money. Doesn't it make sense that
we at least spend a little time to find out more about the other side, before we go into
negotiations? Why do countries send spies into other countries? Why do professional football teams
study the replays of their opponents' games? Because knowledge is power and the more knowledge one
side is able to accumulate about the other, the better chance that side has for victory.
If two countries go to war, the country that has the most intelligence about the other
has the advantage. That was certainly true in the Persian Gulf War-the C.I.A. spies had photographed
every building in Baghdad, and we were able to completely take out their communication systems in
the first few bombing runs.
If two companies are planning to merge, the company that knows the most will usually end
up with the better deal. If two salespeople are vying for an account, the salesperson who knows more
about the company and its representatives stands a better chance of being selected for the account.
Despite the obviousness of the important role that information plays in a negotiation,
few people spend much time analyzing the other side before starting a negotiation. Even people who
wouldn't dream of skiing or scuba diving without taking lessons will jump into a negotiation that
could cost them thousands of dollars without spending adequate time gathering the information they
Rule One: Don't be afraid to admit that you don't know
Why are people reluctant to gather information? Because to find things out, you have
to admit that you don't know, and most of us are extraordinarily reluctant to admit that we don't know.
So the first rule for gathering information is: Don't be over confident. Admit that
you don't know and admit that anything you do know may be wrong.
Rule Two: Don't be afraid to ask the question
I used to be afraid to ask questions for fear that the question would upset the
other person. I was one of those people who say, "Would you mind if I asked you?" or
"Would it embarrass you to tell me?" I don't do that any more. I ask them, "How much
money did you make last year?" If they don't want to tell you, they won't. Even if they don't
answer the question, you'll still be gathering information. Just before General Schwarzkopf sent our
troops into Kuwait, Sam Donaldson asked him, "General, when are you going to start the land
war?" Did he really think that the General was going to say, "Sam, I promised the President
that I wouldn't tell any of the 500 reporters that keep asking me that question, but since you asked
I'll tell you. At 2.00 AM on Tuesday we're going in"? Of course, Schwarzkopf wasn't going to
answer that question, but a good reporter asks anyway. It might put pressure on the other person or
annoy him so that he blurts out something he didn't intend to. Just judging the other person's
reaction to the question might tell you a great deal.
If you want to learn about another person, nothing will work better than the direct
question. In my own experience-now that I'm no longer afraid to ask-I've met only a few people who
were seriously averse to answering even the most personal questions. For example, how many people
get offended when you ask them, "Why were you in hospital?" Not very many.
It's a strange fact of human nature that we're very willing to talk about ourselves,
yet we're reticent when it comes to asking others about themselves. We fear the nasty look and the
rebuff to a personal question. We refrain from asking because we expect the response, "That's
none of your business." Yet how often do we respond that way to others?
When you get over your inhibitions about asking people, the number of people willing
to help you will surprise you. When I wanted to become a professional speaker, I called up a speaker
I admired, Danny Cox, and asked him if I could buy him lunch. Over lunch, he willingly gave me a
$5,000 seminar on how to be successful as a speaker. Whenever I see him today, I remind him of how
easy it would have been for him to talk me out of the idea. Instead, though, he was very encouraging.
It still astounds me how people who have spent a lifetime accumulating knowledge in a particular area
are more than willing to share that information with me without any thought of compensation.
It seems even more incredible that these experts are very rarely asked to share their
expertise. Most people find experts intimidating, so the deep knowledge that they have to offer is
never fully used. What a senseless waste of a valuable resource-all because of an irrational fear.
Rule Three: Ask open-ended questions
Power Negotiators understand the importance of asking and of taking the time to do
it properly. What's the best way to ask? Rudyard Kipling talked about his six honest serving men.
I keep six honest serving-men.
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
and How and Where and Who.
Of Kipling's six honest serving men, I like Why the least. Why can easily be seen as
accusatory. "Why did you do that?" implies criticism. "What did you do next?"
doesn't imply any criticism. If you really need to know why, soften it by rephrasing the question
using what instead: "You probably had a good reason for doing that. What was it?" Learn
to use Kipling's six honest serving men to find out what you need to know.
You'll get even more information if you learn how to ask open-ended questions.
Close-ended questions can be answered with a yes or a no or a specific answer. For example,
"How old are you?" is a closed-end question. You'll get a number and that's it. "How
do you feel about being your age?" is an open-ended question. It invites more than just a
specific answer response.
"When must the work be finished by?" is a closed-ended question. "Tell
me about the time limitations on the job," is an open-ended request for information.
Rule Four: Where you ask the question makes a big difference
Power Negotiators also know that the location where you do the asking can make a
big difference. If you meet with people at their corporate headquarters, surrounded by their
trappings of power and authority and their formality of doing business, it's the least likely place
for you to get information.
People in their work environment are always surrounded by invisible chains of
protocol-what they feel they should be talking about and what they feel they shouldn't. That applies
to an executive in her office, it applies to a salesperson on a sales call, and it applies to a
plumber fixing a pipe in your basement. When people are in their work environments, they're cautious
about sharing information. Get them away from their work environments and information flows much
more freely. And it doesn't take much. Sometimes all that it takes is to get that vice-president
down the hall to his company lunchroom for a cup of coffee. Often that's all it takes to relax the
tensions of the negotiation and get information flowing. And if you meet for lunch at your country
club, surrounded by your trappings of power and authority, where he's psychologically obligated to
you because you're buying the lunch, then that's even better.
Rule Five: Ask other people-not the person with whom you will negotiate
If you go into a negotiation knowing only what the other side has chosen to tell you,
you are very vulnerable. Others will tell you things that the other side won't, and they will also
be able to verify what the other side has told you.
Start by asking people who've done business with the other side already. I think it
will amaze you-even if you thought of them as competition-how much they're willing to share with
you. Be prepared to horse trade information. Don't reveal anything that you don't want them to know,
but the easiest way to get people to open up is to offer information in return. People who have done
business with the other side can be especially helpful in revealing the character of the people with
whom you'll be negotiating. Can you trust them? Do they bluff a great deal in negotiations or are
they straightforward in their dealings? Will they stand behind their verbal agreements or do you need
an attorney to read the fine print in the contracts?
Next, ask people further down the corporate ladder than the person with whom you plan
to deal. Let's say you're going to be negotiating with someone at the main office of a nationwide
retail chain. You might call up one of the branch offices and get an appointment to stop by and see
the local manager. Do some preliminary negotiating with that person. He will tell you a lot, even
though he can't negotiate the deal, about how the company makes a decision, why one supplier is
accepted over another, the specification factors considered, the profit margins expected, the way
the company normally pays, and so on. Be sure that you're "reading between the lines" in
that kind of conversation. Without you knowing it, the negotiations may have already begun. For
example, the Branch Manager may tell you, "They never work with less than a 40 percent
markup," when that may not be the case at all. And never tell the Branch Manager anything you
wouldn't say to the people at his head office. Take the precaution of assuming anything you say will
get back to them.
Next, take advantage of peer-group sharing. This refers to the fact that people have a
natural tendency to share information with their peers. At a cocktail party, you'll find attorneys
talking about their cases to other attorneys, when they wouldn't consider it ethical to share that
information with anyone outside their industry. Doctors will talk about their patients to other
doctors, but not outside their profession.
Power Negotiators know how to use this phenomenon because it applies to all occupations,
not just in the professions. Engineers, controllers, foremen, and truck drivers; all have
allegiances to their occupations, as well as their employers. Put them together with each other and
information will flow that you couldn't get any other way.
If you're thinking of buying a used piece of equipment, have your driver or equipment
supervisor meet with his counterpart at the seller's company.
If you're thinking of buying another company, have your controller take their
bookkeeper out to lunch.
You can take an engineer from your company with you to visit another company and let
your engineer mix with their engineers. You'll find out that unlike top management-the level at
which you may be negotiating-engineers have a common bond that spreads throughout their profession,
rather than just a vertical loyalty to the company for which they currently work. So all kinds of
information will pass between these two.
Naturally, you have to watch out that your person doesn't give away information that
could be damaging to you. So be sure you pick the right person. Caution her carefully about what
you're willing to tell the other side and what you're not willing to tell-the difference between the
open agenda and your hidden agenda. Then let her go to it, challenging her to see how much she can
find out. Peer-group information gathering is very effective.
Power Negotiators always accept complete responsibility for what happens in the
negotiations. Poor negotiators blame the other side for the way they conducted themselves. Many
years ago, I was conducting a negotiating seminar in the San Fernando Valley, and comedian Slappy
White was in the audience. During the break, I told him how much I admired comedians. "It must
be fun to be successful like you," I told him, "but coming up through those comedy clubs
with all their hostile audiences must be sheer hell."
"Roger," he told me, "I've never had a bad audience."
"Oh, come on, Slappy," I replied, "When you were starting out, you must
have had some awful audiences."
"I've never had a bad audience," he repeated. "I've only had audiences
that I didn't know enough about."
As a professional speaker, I accept that there is no such thing as a bad audience, there
are only audiences about whom the speaker doesn't know enough. I've built my reputation on the
planning and research that I do before I'll get up in front of an audience.
As a negotiator, I accept that there's no such thing as a bad negotiation. There are
only negotiations in which we don't know enough about the other side. Information gathering is the
most important thing we can do to assure that the negotiations go smoothly.
is the author of two of Nightingale-Conant's best selling
audiocassette programs, Secrets of Power Negotiating and Secrets of Power
Negotiating for Salespeople. This article is excerpted in part from Roger Dawson's new book -
Secrets of Power Negotiating,
published by Career Press and on sale in bookstores everywhere for $24.99.
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