How to Negotiate to Get What You Need

Line drawing of three people having a discussion.By Robert Perkovich

What do you think of when you think of a negotiation? Buying or selling something? Settling a lawsuit or a divorce? Brokering a multinational treaty?

These certainly are examples of negotiations, but I prefer to define negotiation as any time two or more parties communicate with the intention of reaching a certain goal. If you accept that definition, a negotiation could involve deciding with a friend or loved one which movie to see, where to have dinner or where to vacation. Looked at this way, it is clear that we spend a lot of time negotiating.

Another commonly held perception about negotiating is that there must be a winner or loser, or more accurately, each time I make progress toward my goal, you lose progress toward your goal. A better approach to negotiating is to follow the maxim “outcome and relationship.” Negotiating from a win-lose perspective can impair important relationships.

I would go further to suggest that even if you are negotiating with someone you will never see again, you are still in a relationship. That is, you need this person to reach your goal, and if you negotiate to win, that relationship becomes strained and the possibility of reaching a solution becomes less likely.

So how does one negotiate to reach a goal but avoid impairing relationships? The answer is to negotiate not over your position, but over your needs and interests. That is, don’t say what you want (your position); say why you want it (your need and interest). If you negotiate over positions, you and your negotiating partner have only two conflicting choices, and those choices will pull you apart. On the other hand, if you negotiate over interests, there may be many solutions.

For example, let’s look at a movie negotiation. If one person wants to see an action film and the other person wants to see a romance, it is still possible to find common ground. There are action films that also have a romantic story line. In fact, there might be many options! By approaching the negotiation in this fashion, not only might the parties reach an agreement, but also they are collaborating instead of competing. Even if they don’t reach an agreement, their relationship is enhanced, or at least not impaired.

There are many labels for this approach to negotiating: win-win, integrative, principled. The label I prefer is interest-based bargaining because it captures the essence of the approach—negotiate over interests, not positions. Or, as that expert on negotiations, Mick Jagger, once sang, “You can’t always get what you want/but if you try sometimes you just might find/you get what you need.”

Robert Perkovich is a visiting assistant professor at the Kellstadt Graduate School of Business. He is a member of the National Academy of Arbitrators,
has arbitrated and mediated countless labor-management and employment disputes, and has published on the subject of alternative dispute resolution in several academic journals.

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