Stronger negotiation skills

Are you a strong negotiator?

Very few nonprofit leaders are.

For all of our impressive education and experience helping people in the nonprofit sector, we are generally weak negotiators. This is an important leadership skill that you can only master through practice. Our organizations, internally and externally, will be stronger for it.

Perhaps the very word “negotiate” sounds more like a discipline from the corporate or political worlds, suggestive of backroom deals or contentious arbitrations. In truth, there is nothing untoward about being comfortable as a negotiator. Nonprofit professionals would do well to polish their skills in this essential talent rather than avoid it.

In this context, we’re defining the skill of negotiation as an important part of communications among nonprofit staff, among members of boards, and the critical linkages between the two; between and among volunteers; and certainly between nonprofits and their funding sources or corporate partners.

You may not think of yourself as needing negotiation skills because you don’t see how such transactions occur in your work (or life). In fact, a negotiation occurs anytime two entities are considering a kind of exchange, the proverbial quid pro quo, for which the rules or terms are not established. If you order a meal in a restaurant, for example, the price is indicated on the menu—you are agreeing to the meal on those terms. But in many exchanges, the terms are less defined and thus negotiation can occur.

Whether you are facilitating a negotiation between two parties or acting as the negotiator on one side, consider the following tips for success:

1.  Assess the scope of the task—i.e., how far apart are the parties? Start by considering the position of each. What is a given, i.e., what individual points can be agreed on at the onset? Sometimes you realize fairly quickly that no further negotiation need occur—either because the two sides are of like mind and can resolve minor differences of position easily, or, because there is literally no common ground at all. In the latter case, even skilled mediators cannot salvage a dispute—it will have to play out in court, or, heaven forbid, in armed conflict.

2.  Assuming you can proceed, what would success look like? Consider what each side wants, and what is each appears willing to give in exchange. It is helpful to be as precise as possible. It is also important to be realistic in your perspective—that rarely does one side prevail with 100% of its expectations, at least not without conceding something in return.

3.  There are three essential ingredients of negotiation, the first being that each side must negotiate from a position of some power (i.e., a resource or form of currency worth negotiating with such as influence, information, product, people, land, money, talent). If one side has nothing to negotiate with, there is no transaction or deal to be struck.

4.  The second essential ingredient of negotiation is time. It may well be scarce for both entities, although if one party has the luxury of more time than the other, that is almost always a position of power. Each side has to appreciate its respective strength on the resource of time, and to the best of its ability, proceed on a timeline that best serves their desired outcome.

5.  Third, make sure that sufficient information is on hand to inform the negotiation. Each side has to do the research, their “homework,” to negotiate effectively—and the outcome may well be determined by the party with the best information. This also relates to knowing your opponent and, depending on the situation, taking time to role play with imagining their self-interest.

6.  Make sure that you are negotiating with the proper person, i.e., the decision maker or the person granted the authority to accept the outcome as described in #2.

7.  Even though disputes are often filled with emotion, to the best of your ability, negotiate the facts and the specifics. Be clear and specific about the problem, about what you want, and whether you are realistic in these demands.

8.  As noted above, start with the easy, less contentious elements—those facts around which the two parties are in close agreement. Move point by point, addressing one issue at a time.

9.  In the spirit of simplicity and progress, always frame your negotiating points in a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ format. Similarly, strive to set specific timelines or benchmarks as each point of negotiation is being addressed.

10.  Negotiations get more challenging as the easy issues are crossed off and the sensitive ones are addressed. Prepare for setbacks and always have an alternative plan of action in mind. Creative thinking is an essential skill here.

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